WINSTON-Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University have successfully transplanted bladders into seven patients in what the institute is calling the first such success.

The bladders were grown from the patients’ own cells on biodegradable molds, or scaffolds, shaped like a bladder.

“This is one small step in our ability to go forward in replacing damaged tissues and organs,” said Anthony Atala, MD, who is director of the Institute. “We wanted to go slowly and carefully and make sure we did it the right way. This is a small, limited experience, but it has enough follow-up to show us that tissue engineering is a viable tool that will allow us to tackle problems of similar magnitude.”

The success was reported Monday in The Lancet, a medical journal published in the United Kingdom.

“In terms of actually engineering a complex construct that we engineer outside the body, and then we implant inside the body, this is really the first time we’ve been able to do that,” Atala, a urologist, told The Boston Globe.

Atala is involved with two biotech startups located in Winston-Salem that are attempting to capitalize on his research. Tengion, which raised $39million in an A round of venture capital last year, is focused on research related to organ regeneration and has licensed much of Atala’s work. Plureon is focused on stem cell work being done by Atala.

In the study, bladder cells were removed from the children and teenagers and then grown over a scaffold before being transplanted back into the patients. Because the tissue is grown form a patient’s own cells there is no chance of rejection, researchers said.

“We have shown that regenerative medicine techniques can be used to generate functional bladders that are durable,” Atala said. “This suggests that regenerative medicine may one day be a solution to the shortage of donor organs in this country for those needing transplants.”

Atala’s team is researching means to grow 20 different tissues and organs.

The study dates to 1999, but Atala has been a leader in the field for more than a decade. He has studied the bladder since 1990. Patients from ages 4 to 19 were involved in the study. All had poor bladder function due to congenital spinal birth defects. “It is rewarding when you can see the improved quality of life in these patients,” Atala said.

The patients were treated at Boston Children’s Hospital. Atala was director of Tissue Engineering and Cellular Therapeutics at Harvard Medical School before moving his program to Wake Forest in 2004.

Atala is also the director of the National Regenerative Medicine Foundation, which recently received $1 million from the federal government. The money is to be used to launch a Soldier Treatment and Regeneration Consortium to research how to treat burns and to grow limbs for wounded soldiers.

Co-researchers with Atala were Shay Soker and James Yoo with Wake Forest, and Alan Retik and Stuart Bauer with Harvard.

The full report on Atala’s project can be found at:

Institute for Regenerative Medicine: