Articles, Blog

Alan Russell: The potential of regenerative medicine

December 6, 2019

I’m going to talk to you today about hopefully converting fear into hope. When we go to the physician today — when we go to the doctor’s office and we walk in, there are words that we just don’t want to hear. There are words that we’re truly afraid of. Diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart failure, lung failure — things that we know are debilitating diseases, for which there’s relatively little that can be done. And what I want to lay out for you today is a different way of thinking about how to treat debilitating disease, why it’s important, why without it perhaps our health care system will melt down if you think it already hasn’t, and where we are clinically today, and where we might go tomorrow, and what some of the hurdles are. And we’re going to do all of that in 18 minutes, I promise. I want to start with this slide, because this slide sort of tells the story the way Science Magazine thinks of it. This was an issue from 2002 that they published with a lot of different articles on the bionic human. It was basically a regenerative medicine issue. Regenerative medicine is an extraordinarily simple concept that everybody can understand. It’s simply accelerating the pace at which the body heals itself to a clinically relevant timescale. So we know how to do this in many of the ways that are up there. We know that if we have a damaged hip, you can put an artificial hip in. And this is the idea that Science Magazine used on their front cover. This is the complete antithesis of regenerative medicine. This is not regenerative medicine. Regenerative medicine is what Business Week put up when they did a story about regenerative medicine not too long ago. The idea is that instead of figuring out how to ameliorate symptoms with devices and drugs and the like — and I’ll come back to that theme a few times — instead of doing that, we will regenerate lost function of the body by regenerating the function of organs and damaged tissue. So that at the end of the treatment, you are the same as you were at the beginning of the treatment. Very few good ideas — if you agree that this is a good idea — very few good ideas are truly novel. And this is just the same. If you look back in history, Charles Lindbergh, who was better known for flying airplanes, was actually one of the first people along with Alexis Carrel, one of the Nobel Laureates from Rockefeller, to begin to think about, could you culture organs? And they published this book in 1937, where they actually began to think about, what could you do in bio-reactors to grow whole organs? We’ve come a long way since then. I’m going to share with you some of the exciting work that’s going on. But before doing that, what I’d like to do is share my depression about the health care system and the need for this with you. Many of the talks yesterday talked about improving the quality of life, and reducing poverty, and essentially increasing life expectancy all around the globe. One of the challenges is that the richer we are, the longer we live. And the longer we live, the more expensive it is to take care of our diseases as we get older. This is simply the wealth of a country versus the percent of population over the age of 65. And you can basically see that the richer a country is, the older the people are within it. Why is this important? And why is this a particularly dramatic challenge right now? If the average age of your population is 30, then the average kind of disease that you have to treat is maybe a broken ankle every now and again, maybe a little bit of asthma. If the average age in your country is 45 to 55, now the average person is looking at diabetes, early-onset diabetes, heart failure, coronary artery disease — things that are inherently more difficult to treat, and much more expensive to treat. Just have a look at the demographics in the U.S. here. This is from “The Untied States of America.” In 1930, there were 41 workers per retiree. 41 people who were basically outside of being really sick, paying for the one retiree who was experiencing debilitating disease. In 2010, two workers per retiree in the U.S. And this is matched in every industrialized, wealthy country in the world. How can you actually afford to treat patients when the reality of getting old looks like this? This is age versus cost of health care. And you can see that right around age 45, 40 to 45, there’s a sudden spike in the cost of health care. It’s actually quite interesting. If you do the right studies, you can look at how much you as an individual spend on your own health care, plotted over your lifetime. And about seven years before you’re about to die, there’s a spike. And you can actually — (Laughter) — we won’t get into that. (Laughter) There are very few things, very few things that you can really do that will change the way that you can treat these kinds of diseases and experience what I would call healthy aging. I’d suggest there are four things, and none of these things include an insurance system or a legal system. All those things do is change who pays. They don’t actually change what the actual cost of the treatment is. One thing you can do is not treat. You can ration health care. We won’t talk about that anymore. It’s too depressing. You can prevent. Obviously a lot of monies should be put into prevention. But perhaps most interesting, to me anyway, and most important, is the idea of diagnosing a disease much earlier on in the progression, and then treating the disease to cure the disease instead of treating a symptom. Think of it in terms of diabetes, for instance. Today, with diabetes, what do we do? We diagnose the disease eventually, once it becomes symptomatic, and then we treat the symptom for 10, 20, 30, 40 years. And we do OK. Insulin’s a pretty good therapy. But eventually it stops working, and diabetes leads to a predictable onset of debilitating disease. Why couldn’t we just inject the pancreas with something to regenerate the pancreas early on in the disease, perhaps even before it was symptomatic? And it might be a little bit expensive at the time that we did it, but if it worked, we would truly be able to do something different. This video, I think, gets across the concept that I’m talking about quite dramatically. This is a newt re-growing its limb. If a newt can do this kind of thing, why can’t we? I’ll actually show you some more important features about limb regeneration in a moment. But what we’re talking about in regenerative medicine is doing this in every organ system of the body, for tissues and for organs themselves. So today’s reality is that if we get sick, the message is we will treat your symptoms, and you need to adjust to a new way of life. I would pose to you that tomorrow — and when tomorrow is we could debate, but it’s within the foreseeable future — we will talk about regenerative rehabilitation. There’s a limb prosthetic up here, similar actually one on the soldier that’s come back from Iraq. There are 370 soldiers that have come back from Iraq that have lost limbs. Imagine if instead of facing that, they could actually face the regeneration of that limb. It’s a wild concept. I’ll show you where we are at the moment in working towards that concept. But it’s applicable, again, to every organ system. How can we do that? The way to do that is to develop a conversation with the body. We need to learn to speak the body’s language. And to switch on processes that we knew how to do when we were a fetus. A mammalian fetus, if it loses a limb during the first trimester of pregnancy, will re-grow that limb. So our DNA has the capacity to do these kinds of wound-healing mechanisms. It’s a natural process, but it is lost as we age. In a child, before the age of about six months, if they lose their fingertip in an accident, they’ll re-grow their fingertip. By the time they’re five, they won’t be able to do that anymore. So to engage in that conversation with the body, we need to speak the body’s language. And there are certain tools in our toolbox that allow us to do this today. I’m going to give you an example of three of these tools through which to converse with the body. The first is cellular therapies. Clearly, we heal ourselves in a natural process, using cells to do most of the work. Therefore, if we can find the right cells and implant them in the body, they may do the healing. Secondly, we can use materials. We heard yesterday about the importance of new materials. If we can invent materials, design materials, or extract materials from a natural environment, then we might be able to have those materials induce the body to heal itself. And finally, we may be able to use smart devices that will offload the work of the body and allow it to heal. I’m going to show you an example of each of these, and I’m going to start with materials. Steve Badylak — who’s at the University of Pittsburgh — about a decade ago had a remarkable idea. And that idea was that the small intestine of a pig, if you threw away all the cells, and if you did that in a way that allowed it to remain biologically active, may contain all of the necessary factors and signals that would signal the body to heal itself. And he asked a very important question. He asked the question, if I take that material, which is a natural material that usually induces healing in the small intestine, and I place it somewhere else on a person’s body, would it give a tissue-specific response, or would it make small intestine if I tried to make a new ear? I wouldn’t be telling you this story if it weren’t compelling. The picture I’m about to show you is a compelling picture. (Laughter) However, for those of you that are even the slightest bit squeamish — even though you may not like to admit it in front of your friends — the lights are down. This is a good time to look at your feet, check your Blackberry, do anything other than look at the screen. (Laughter) What I’m about to show you is a diabetic ulcer. And although — it’s good to laugh before we look at this. This is the reality of diabetes. I think a lot of times we hear about diabetics, diabetic ulcers, we just don’t connect the ulcer with the eventual treatment, which is amputation, if you can’t heal it. So I’m going to put the slide up now. It won’t be up for long. This is a diabetic ulcer. It’s tragic. The treatment for this is amputation. This is an older lady. She has cancer of the liver as well as diabetes, and has decided to die with what’ s left of her body intact. And this lady decided, after a year of attempted treatment of that ulcer, that she would try this new therapy that Steve invented. That’s what the wound looked like 11 weeks later. That material contained only natural signals. And that material induced the body to switch back on a healing response that it didn’t have before. There’s going to be a couple more distressing slides for those of you — I’ll let you know when you can look again. This is a horse. The horse is not in pain. If the horse was in pain, I wouldn’t show you this slide. The horse just has another nostril that’s developed because of a riding accident. Just a few weeks after treatment — in this case, taking that material, turning it into a gel, and packing that area, and then repeating the treatment a few times — and the horse heals up. And if you took an ultrasound of that area, it would look great. Here’s a dolphin where the fin’s been re-attached. There are now 400,000 patients around the world who have used that material to heal their wounds. Could you regenerate a limb? DARPA just gave Steve 15 million dollars to lead an eight-institution project to begin the process of asking that question. And I’ll show you the 15 million dollar picture. This is a 78 year-old man who’s lost the end of his fingertip. Remember that I mentioned before the children who lose their fingertips. After treatment that’s what it looks like. This is happening today. This is clinically relevant today. There are materials that do this. Here are the heart patches. But could you go a little further? Could you, say, instead of using material, can I take some cells along with the material, and remove a damaged piece of tissue, put a bio-degradable material on there? You can see here a little bit of heart muscle beating in a dish. This was done by Teruo Okano at Tokyo Women’s Hospital. He can actually grow beating tissue in a dish. He chills the dish, it changes its properties and he peels it right out of the dish. It’s the coolest stuff. Now I’m going to show you cell-based regeneration. And what I’m going to show you here is stem cells being removed from the hip of a patient. Again, if you’re squeamish, you don’t want to watch. But this one’s kind of cool. So this is a bypass operation, just like what Al Gore had, with a difference. In this case, at the end of the bypass operation, you’re going to see the stem cells from the patient that were removed at the beginning of the procedure being injected directly into the heart of the patient. And I’m standing up here because at one point I’m going to show you just how early this technology is. Here go the stem cells, right into the beating heart of the patient. And if you look really carefully, it’s going to be right around this point you’ll actually see a back-flush. You see the cells coming back out. We need all sorts of new technology, new devices, to get the cells to the right place at the right time. Just a little bit of data, a tiny bit of data. This was a randomized trial. At this time this was an N of 20. Now there’s an N of about 100. Basically, if you take an extremely sick patient and you give them a bypass, they get a little bit better. If you give them stem cells as well as their bypass, for these particular patients, they became asymptomatic. These are now two years out. The coolest thing would be is if you could diagnose the disease early, and prevent the onset of the disease to a bad state. This is the same procedure, but now done minimally invasively, with only three holes in the body where they’re taking the heart and simply injecting stem cells through a laparoscopic procedure. There go the cells. We don’t have time to go into all of those details, but basically, that works too. You can take patients who are less sick, and bring them back to an almost asymptomatic state through that kind of therapy. Here’s another example of stem-cell therapy that isn’t quite clinical yet, but I think very soon will be. This is the work of Kacey Marra from Pittsburgh, along with a number of colleagues around the world. They’ve decided that liposuction fluid, which — in the United States, we have a lot of liposuction fluid. (Laughter) It’s a great source of stem cells. Stem cells are packed in that liposuction fluid. So you could go in, you could get your tummy-tuck. Out comes the liposuction fluid, and in this case, the stem cells are isolated and turned into neurons. All done in the lab. And I think fairly soon, you will see patients being treated with their own fat-derived, or adipose-derived, stem cells. I talked before about the use of devices to dramatically change the way we treat disease. Here’s just one example before I close up. This is equally tragic. We have a very abiding and heartbreaking partnership with our colleagues at the Institute for Surgical Research in the US Army, who have to treat the now 11,000 kids that have come back from Iraq. Many of those patients are very severely burned. And if there’s anything that’s been learned about burn, it’s that we don’t know how to treat it. Everything that is done to treat burn — basically we do a sodding approach. We make something over here, and then we transplant it onto the site of the wound, and we try and get the two to take. In this case here, a new, wearable bio-reactor has been designed — it should be tested clinically later this year at ISR — by Joerg Gerlach in Pittsburgh. And that bio-reactor will lay down in the wound bed. The gun that you see there sprays cells. That’s going to spray cells over that area. The reactor will serve to fertilize the environment, deliver other things as well at the same time, and therefore we will seed that lawn, as opposed to try the sodding approach. It’s a completely different way of doing it. So my 18 minutes is up. So let me finish up with some good news, and maybe a little bit of bad news. The good news is that this is happening today. It’s very powerful work. Clearly the images kind of get that across. It’s incredibly difficult because it’s highly inter-disciplinary. Almost every field of science engineering and clinical practice is involved in trying to get this to happen. A number of governments, and a number of regions, have recognized that this is a new way to treat disease. The Japanese government were perhaps the first, when they decided to invest first 3 billion, later another 2 billion in this field. It’s no coincidence. Japan is the oldest country on earth in terms of its average age. They need this to work or their health system dies. So they’re putting a lot of strategic investment focused in this area. The European Union, same thing. China, the same thing. China just launched a national tissue-engineering center. The first year budget was 250 million US dollars. In the United States we’ve had a somewhat different approach. (Laughter) Oh, for Al Gore to come and be in the real world as president. We’ve had a different approach. And the approach has basically been to just sort of fund things as they come along. But there’s been no strategic investment to bring all of the necessary things to bear and focus them in a careful way. And I’m going to finish up with a quote, maybe a little cheap shot, at the director of the NIH, who’s a very charming man. Myself and Jay Vacanti from Harvard went to visit with him and a number of his directors of his institute just a few months ago, to try and convince him that it was time to take just a little piece of that 27.5 billion dollars that he’s going to get next year and focus it, in a strategic way, to make sure we can accelerate the pace at which these things get to patients. And at the end of a very testy meeting, what the NIH director said was, “Your vision is larger than our appetite.” I’d like to close by saying that no one’s going to change our vision, but together we can change his appetite. Thank you.


  • Reply FlailingJunk April 14, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Well, this is taking forever to load so i will go ahead an answer the question. Because losing an appendage is generally fatal, so there was no selection pressure for limb regeneration. Either that or its is gods plan for you to be a paraplegic and the evil scientists trying to restore your limbs are the agents of satan. It could be that.

  • Reply MaxSafeheaD April 14, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    what a great project. ..

  • Reply newmac April 14, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    how many years has that utter dumbass bush set us back scientifically; economically, and culturally…?

  • Reply Lord Metroid April 14, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    If the speaker would know that government funding isn't what the people in need for treatement needs he would realize that spending government money to solve a problem will not help. Instead deregulate and eliminate taxation on areas and you will see growth like no other country has. The only problem with this is that the government goons want get their money and they really really don't find that appealing.

  • Reply Mark Peters April 14, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    religious groups hold the rest of us hostage to their superstitions … we need to un-arm them and support stem cell study and development for the betterment of human beings lives

  • Reply Bruce Martin April 14, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    It's sponsored by BMW.

  • Reply Mjhavok April 14, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    What a great talk. This is the real world implications of putting a dumb ass in the White house and people attacking science in schools. It amounts to the retardation of science and the slowing of these methods and procedures. All politicians should watch this video.

  • Reply Mjhavok April 14, 2008 at 11:00 pm


  • Reply Mjhavok April 14, 2008 at 11:00 pm


  • Reply nofx221984 April 15, 2008 at 5:23 am

    Can't wait till I become a doctor.

  • Reply Mjhavok April 16, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    The Republican retardation of science has been immense. If Gore had won (wait, he did win) then it was be retarded much less. I don't think it would be utopia but it would be better. Look at all the money wasted on Iraq.

  • Reply kurtilein3 June 6, 2008 at 12:52 am

    great video 🙂

    but what about the bans on stem cell research and the religious fundamentalists behind this? he should have said something about it in his talk.

  • Reply DeletedDelusion June 25, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    This is realy excellent stuff.

  • Reply Nuclearcx July 17, 2008 at 6:36 am


  • Reply sunp July 17, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    and yet you americans let that douche on the throne. again.

  • Reply Mjhavok July 17, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I am from and live in Scotland.

  • Reply beriukay July 20, 2008 at 1:27 pm

    Yeah, where'd the movie go?

  • Reply faithm July 21, 2008 at 2:50 am

    christians aren't against adult stemcell research. no cure has ever been found or used from embryonic cells, but people have been cured of Parkinsons and other such diseases with adult stem cells. they dont want child sacrifice to be involved in stem cell research. adult is good enough for now.

  • Reply faithm July 21, 2008 at 3:30 am

    theres too much money in maintaining sickness for the fda or anyone to support prevention

  • Reply kurtilein3 July 22, 2008 at 1:22 pm


    unfortunately, you do not have any rational arguments to back this up. there are no child sacrifices involved. the religious belief that a bunch of 100 human cells can experience more suffering than a fly, which has 100000s of neurons, is irrational.

    and it makes research of this interesting field of science impossible in many many countries.

    its a case of dogmatic religious beliefs hindering scientific progress, and a reason to fight back against christianity.

  • Reply FromBoomTown September 6, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    I think the christians got this video.

  • Reply Elvenass September 7, 2008 at 8:13 am

    not everything?

  • Reply kurtilein3 January 31, 2009 at 10:30 pm


    ill just repeat myself… "unfortunately, you do not have any rational arguments to back this up. there are no child sacrifices involved. the religious belief that a bunch of 100 human cells can experience more suffering than a fly, which has 100000s of neurons, is irrational."

    embryonic stem cells are "harvested" while the embryo has a size of about 100 cells. any questions left?

    morons oppose this because they believe in this nonsensical soul-stuff.

  • Reply kurtilein3 January 31, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    why is this video gone?

    and where did it go?

  • Reply kurtilein3 February 6, 2009 at 12:21 am


    what purpose do those irrational religious beliefs have? like, this belief in souls?

    if such a belief has NO positive effect, but when it has the negative effects that otherwise rational people go nuts when you criticize it, and that it makes stem cell research difficult, then we need to get rid of those beliefs, educate those misconceptions out of the people, to make progress in stem cell research easier.

    what point? maybe AFTER its brain is bigger than that of a fly?

  • Reply Casmige February 25, 2009 at 1:07 am

    What Hubris & Outright Pettifogging Greed for the NRH Director to assert that the Vision is Bigger than their Appetite.
    27.8 BILLION Dollar Endowment @ Harvard University & they can't pinch a bit for this strategic focus & development.
    What elite BLOOTERS they are..

  • Reply Lonnie Nerney May 4, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I would think that a fetus becomes a "person" when brain activity starts, or just before the third trimester (about 25 weeks in). After all, it is our unique thought and creativity that we associate with our uniqueness compared to everything else right? Even religiously motivated people can relate to this and assume that this could be a representation of our "soul" So I figure that after 25 weeks its a bit late to consider abortion.

  • Reply Gnomefro June 16, 2009 at 4:57 am

    When you are making claims about nature, you'd better be prepared to back them up or be laughed at. You have no reason to believe in souls. You have no idea what a soul is, and finally, you have no reason to believe anything related to souls happens at conception.

    Why should I "respect" your unfounded assertion?

    This is not a question of "intolerance", but about you being unable to back up your claims.

  • Reply J Bowers August 24, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Here, Let me fix this for you. It is a simple concept.
    Instead of saying WHY CAN'T, instead say HOW CAN.
    There, I hope that helps.

  • Reply J Bowers August 24, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    p.s., If they full scale tissue regen then it would negatively affect cyborg research. True story.

  • Reply Galacticmaster October 22, 2010 at 1:14 am

    cant wait for the first bio-wars

  • Reply Mjhavok March 21, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    @kjbhlogkh You can't read. I said it would have been better if Gore had won. All American president are horrific but I think Gore would have been less awful than Bush.

    What you know about science I could fit in a thimble. Thanks for responding to something I wrote over 2 years ago.

  • Reply Mjhavok March 22, 2011 at 4:13 am

    @kjbhlogkh LOL

  • Reply Mjhavok March 22, 2011 at 7:10 am

    @kjbhlogkh Once again you demonstrate your sound scientific knowledge.

  • Reply Aleczacool October 17, 2011 at 2:47 am


    No, because they've already spent the money manufacturing and distributing the equipment.

  • Reply Multiplex January 26, 2012 at 12:09 am

    9GAG ARMY !!

  • Reply Backyard Discovery February 10, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Someday we will grow new body parts…

  • Reply Doc Scrove September 25, 2012 at 8:48 am

    Yes please, that would be an outstanding bit of information.

  • Reply Scott D October 24, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    yeah for soldiers

  • Reply allnatural singh December 6, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    im on the side of stem cells, but my friend a lot of ethical issues that arise in medicine are NOT religiously motivated. Religion isnt the only thing that is against Stem Cell Research, the idea of allowing a living organism, or cells to go through testing&research, and its benefits to the rest of the world, is not digestible to SOME people. Some people Dont want to donate their organs after passing away, i think everyone SHOULD, but the point is RELIGION has nothing to do with that decision.

  • Reply wasdwasdedsf December 16, 2012 at 4:57 am

    oh, when did he win?

  • Reply Misana January 8, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    8:49 WOW.

  • Reply singularity March 27, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    five years have passed and we still don't have this yet

  • Reply NobodyInTraining May 25, 2013 at 10:11 am

    This guy is really cool…

  • Reply valar June 9, 2014 at 6:03 am

    Now we have synthetic blood, 3-D organ printing and can restore limited function to paralytics.  Both the United States and the EU launched massive efforts last year to map the brain.  And so much more.  God knows where we will be in 30 years but it will doubtless be extraordinary.

  • Reply MegaFarinato July 15, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    omg they want another remake of the Spiderman movies

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