In a Health Journalism 2013 panel focused on research taking place in regenerative medicine, Dany Adams, Ph.D., an associate research fellow at Tufts University, described her research with African frogs.
Through her research with bioelectricity, or electrical signals, she has proven that African clawed frogs can regenerate tails. She added that this particular species of frogs was a good candidate for the research, as the regeneration happens with a minimum risk of infection. What was most surprising when it came to the tail regeneration in the African clawed frogs is that the muscle, skeleton and spinal cord regenerated on their own, without the need of any additional therapies. She also shared that children can re-grow finger tips before the age of 10.
Adams said the possible implications for human benefits are great and implored journalists to cover such research so the public and legislators, who decide on funding for the continuation of such research, know about it.
Ali Khademhosseini, Ph.D., an associate professor in the division of bioengineering at Harvard Medical School, described his research with cells and how these can be engineered into living blocks – think of it as a Lego model. His goal is to compose the cells in a three-dimensional state and make them perform correct organ functions.
He said this research has garnered the attention of several branches of the Department of Defense, as well as the pharmaceutical industry. As Khademhosseini explained, doing research on human tissues is much more profound than animal testing.
Bohdan Pomahac, M.D., and his team did the first facial transplant in the United States. Pomahac said there are many important things to consider when it comes to facial reconstruction besides the aesthetics – coverage, support & function as well as lining (the muscle and skeletal foundation under the skin).The structure of the human face is very complex and Pomahac’s team has to consider how nerves and muscles have to work in tight concert.
Another important aspect of facial reconstruction is connecting the brain to facial functions. Before the regeneration of facial tissue, patients’ brain activity appears to be minimal. Once the reconstruction plan for the patient is complete, brain activity is increased.
Leigh Hochberg, M.D., Ph.D, associate professor of engineering at Brown University, described his research in developing technologies to assist people that have been significantly paralyzed after a stroke.
The project that he oversees, BrainGate and Intracortial Brain-Computer Interfaces, help individuals do simple tasks such as drink water with robotics assistance. In short, this technology allows a person to maneuver a robot to do a simple task for him or her, simply by thinking about it.
Hochberg highlighted the case of a 42-year-old woman that was gardening and suddenly got a bit dizzy. She walked inside her home and suddenly couldn’t move the left or right side of her body. She went to the hospital and fell nto coma. She had significant damage to her brain – unable to move, unable to speak. These are the people that his research is trying to help.
In a video, Hochberg showed how the woman was able to take a drink from her favorite beverage, a latte, simply by thinking and looking directly at the drink.
Hochberg said that thousands are affected by complete paralyzation after strokes worldwide. For people with this level of movement debilitation, the use of the body must include assistive technology.
The main goal of his research is for the brain to turn thoughts into actions. This technology can potentially allow affected individuals to use keyboards to aid in speech and communications.
When it comes to research funding, all four panelist shared that with the dwindling of NIH funding for these types of research, each is seeking to diversify funding – including federal funding from the Department of Defense, as well as pharmaceutical companies. Hochberg said that, although the cost of this research is “…very expensive, the return on the investment it remarkable.”