Artificial organs – science fiction or reality?

Since the dawn of modern molecular biology and cell biology in the 1950s, many people have been dreaming of a day one can create organs in the laboratory from patients’ cell samples. Every year many patients die in hospitals due to malfunctioning or failing organs caused by various diseases or accidents. Organ transplantation from donors has many complications and remains risky due to the rejection of foreign tissues by the immune system.

Compatibility is often rare and researchers have been searching for a solution of this problem for a long time. In recent years there have been great advances in the new so-called field of tissue engineering, which focuses on the creation of human tissues and organs grown in the laboratory. One of the pioneering laboratories has been the Vacanti laboratory in Boston/ MA. The laboratory focuses on the interface between fundamental and translational research. Now, researchers at the Frauenhofer Institut in Stuttgart/ Germany have started to engineer human skin samples and aim to supply 5000 of these every month. Cambridge has just announced a meeting in October on musculoskeletal tissue engineering and Oxford even has a centre for tissue engineering actively involved in this research. The main advantage of the creation of tissues and organs from the laboratory is that they are virtually samples of one’s own body and will not face any rejection. Furthermore, such a technique could eliminate organ shortage, which costs so many lives every year.

However, the engineering of human tissues has been a great challenge for researchers. Until now successful applications in Europe have mainly been limited to the creation of new cartilage that can be transplanted.

Do we need to be afraid? Are all these laboratories fragments of our greatest nightmares stemming from science fiction movies and the fear of the unknown? Are we interfering with something better left alone?

These are all very valid ethical questions and need to be addressed before any such research is conducted. Furthermore, the public needs to know what people are doing and what public research money is spent on. I have been involved in biomedical research for a while now and am happy to comment on any of our readers’ comments.

What will organ transplantation look like in a decade from now? This is something that is likely to concern many of us in one way or another.

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Epigenetics in Cambridge – DNA May Not Be Your Destiny

Epigenetics is a newly emerging field in Biology and has invaded many news reports around the world over the past few years. But what exactly is epigenetics?

The term genetics describes the study of heritable changes involving DNA, which is the molecule carrying genetic information in our cells. When we reproduce, our genetic code recombines with that of our partner to create another fascinating individual. Sometimes our cells mutate and cause unwanted proliferation, which can lead to cancer. These are genetic changes, i.e. alterations in our actual genetic code. However, our bodies are not that simple and there are other changes which are heritable and do not include the change of the genetic sequence. Hence the term carries the prefix “epi” (Greek for besides, above). Factors such as the 3D-structure of our DNA, expression of genes, natural modifications such as methylations and so forth have a great influence on development and heritage. They can even be involved in the formation of diseases, which in return has drawn the attention of many pharmaceutical companies to this new field. So the good news is: we are not just the sum of our genes!

Cambridge as a place of world-class research is at the forefront of epigenetic research and the university has many outstanding research groups working in that field. The Cambridge Epigenetics Club, which meets regularly in Cambridge, has been set up for interested individuals of the university to share knowledge and bring people of the scientific field together.

Epigenetics will be hitting the news in the next few years and certainly there will be heavy debates about new strategies to tackle diseases. It is important to remember that the field aims to understand the fundamentals of life and the outcomes of the research can potentially be used to help people. Most likely there will be heavy debates on the subject. I my opinion, it is important to keep an open opinion and remember what scientist try to do. In this context, the word “Cloning” is a natural phenomenon seen in many species and only got a negative connotation when the news reported about “Dolly the Sheep” and “Designer Babies”. It is up to us as the public to decide where we want to lead society, what challenges we want to tackle in the future and how we want to use the invaluable wealth of knowledge science has to offer.

So we are not defined just by the sum of our genes. Who we are and what we are is determined by many other factors. What will be the next discovery?

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Olympian Backs Big Walk for Alzheimer’s Research UK

Britain’s number one female javelin thrower Goldie Sayers is putting her weight behind Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Big Walk in Cambridgeshire on Sunday 22 May. Goldie is urging everyone to step up to the challenge and help the UK’s leading dementia research charity raise £10,000 to pay for 500 hours of pioneering dementia research.

Hundreds of people are expected to take part in the ten mile Big Walk, which starts and finishes in Great Shelford, home to Alzheimer’s Research UK. The route heads towards the centre of Cambridge, via footpaths and countryside, passing the Botanical Gardens and on through Grantchester Meadows.

Cambridge-based Goldie, 28, who represented Britain at the Beijing and Athens Olympics, said:
“This is a Big Walk with a fantastic focus – to raise desperately needed funds for dementia research. It’s a marvellous opportunity to keep fit, have fun and see some beautiful areas of Cambridgeshire that can only be fully appreciated on foot. And keeping fit can help reduce the risk of many serious diseases, including dementia, so everyone’s a winner!

“It’s great to know Alzheimer’s Research UK is there for us all, dedicated to finding new treatments for dementia so that future generations can reap the benefits.

“Representing Britain and competing in the Olympics takes real dedication too and my training for the London 2012 trials takes up all my time. My thoughts will be with everyone on the day of the Big Walk and I hope as many people as possible will join in to help Alzheimer’s Research UK defeat dementia.”

Miranda Mays, Community Fundraising Manager for Alzheimer’s Research UK, added:
“Our Big Walk is a first for Alzheimer’s Research UK and we plan to make it a regular date on the Cambridgeshire calendar. It’s just brilliant to have Goldie’s backing for this event and we look forward to following her progress with the London 2012 Olympics.

“We’ve been amazed by the support we’ve received so far and there’s still time for people to sign up to take part, or come along as a volunteer, and help us achieve our goal of raising £10,000. Every step taken and every penny raised will bring us closer to finding ways to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure dementia.

“There are over 6,000 people in Cambridgeshire living with dementia today and over 820,000 across the UK, with numbers forecast to rise substantially in the next generation. Dementia can only be defeated through research but funding lags far behind other serious diseases and we rely entirely on our wonderful supporters.”

To take up the challenge or volunteer to help on the day, contact Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Big Walk team on 01223 843899 or email To register, adults £15, under 18s £7.50. More information is also available online at

About Alzheimer’s Research UK: Alzheimer’s Research UK is the UK’s leading dementia research charity specialising in finding preventions, treatments and a cure for dementia. Based in Cambridge, they believe that science and innovation hold the key to defeating dementia. Alzheimer’s Research UK conducts world-class research to prevent, treat and cure dementia. They help people to understand dementia and the progress they are making. Alzheimer’s Research UK forges partnerships with Government and other key organisations to make dementia research a national priority. For further details, check out the Alzheimer’s Research UK website.

Image courtesy of Alzheimer’s Research UK

Artificial Pancreas Tested at Cambridge University

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have demonstrated the usability of an artificial pancreas for patients with Type 1 diabetes. The apparatus allows the regulation of the patient’s blood sugar levels during night time and thus prevents hypoglycaemia, i.e. low blood sugar levels.

If blood sugar levels fall to low, patients can experience warning signs such as irritability, shakiness and heart pounding. At night, however, these signs often remain unnoticed, leading to permanent damage or even to fatality. Dr. Roman Havorka at the Institute for Metabolic Science of the university has been leading two studies on the applicability of the artificial pancreas. After the promising test results, he proposed that the device might be applicable for the usage at home, which will be included in the next test series.

The artificial organ itself includes two parts, an insulin pump and a glucose level monitor. It is the first time that both technologies have been successfully combined. Active research in the UK also encompasses the creation of a bioengineered pancreas including beta cells to create insulin. However, research in that area is still in its infancy as we reported previously.

The new technology tested at the university may help many people in the UK. Since the year 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK has increased from around 1.4 million to 2.6 million. It is estimated that by 2025 over four million people will have diabetes in Britain. These alarming figures show that diabetes is one of the major health challenges over the next decades. Although most of these people are predicted to have Type 2 diabetes due to an aging population, a strong increase in Type 1 diabetes is also expected due to wrong dieting. New technology such as the one demonstrated here will potentially benefit millions of people.

Image: courtesy of the University of Cambridge