Optimistic medical developments in 2013
Lab-grown mini organs
This purple and green image is of a very special human brain which was grown from skin cells entirely in a laboratory.
The pea-sized “cerebral organoid” is similar to the brain of a nine-week-old foetus.
It has distinct brain regions such as the cerebral cortex, the retina, and an early hippocampus, which would be heavily involved in memory in a fully developed adult brain.
Scientists hope the organoids, which are not capable of thought, will transform the understanding of the development of the brain and neurological disorders.
And it’s not just brains. Japanese researchers said they were “gobsmacked” at making tiny functioning livers in the same way.
They think transplanting thousands of these liver buds could help to reverse liver failure.
On a larger scale, researchers have made full-sized kidneys for rats which were able to make urine.
Their vision is to take a donor kidney and strip it of all its old cells to leave a honeycomb-like scaffold, which would then be used to build a new kidney out of a patient’s own cells.
Expect more from the “grow-your-own organs” field in the coming years.
Dementia on the back foot
Understanding the billions of neurons which make up the human brain, one of the most complex structures in the universe, is one of the greatest challenges in medical science.
This year marked a major breakthrough in defeating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
A team of UK Medical Research Council scientists used a chemical to stop the death of brain cells, in a living brain, that would have otherwise died due to a neurodegenerative disease.
This is a first and a significant discovery. One prominent scientist said this moment would “be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s disease”.
Dementia has also become a major global priority in 2013 amid fears it is rapidly becoming the health and social care problem of a generation.
The G8 group of nations have pledge to fund research aimed at curing the disease by 2025.
It is just one aspect of a flood of money entering brain research.
Human cloning was used to produce early embryos which a group of US scientists described as a “significant step” for medicine.
It has been a long struggle to reach this stage, the same technique was used to produce Dolly the sheep way back in 1996.
No-one is considering attempting to let a cloned embryo develop.
Instead the cloned embryos were used as a source of stem cells, which can make new heart muscle, bone, brain tissue or any other type of cell in the body.
However, it is an ethically charged field of research and there have been calls for a ban.
Meanwhile, the first trial of stem cells produced from a patient’s own body has been approved by the Japanese government.
Scientists will use the cells to attempt to treat a form of blindness – age-related macular degeneration.
And a new era of regenerative medicine could be opened up by transforming tissue inside a living animal back to an embryonic state.
It’s an inherently dangerous thing to do; the tissues became cancerous in the experiments, but if it was controlled then it could be used to heal the body.