Biomedical Engineering: Bionic Breakthrough

Milestone in tissue engineering could improve patient treatment, outcomes

In a first-of-its-kind operation in the U.S., a team of Duke doctors helped create a bioengineered blood vessel and transplanted it into the arm of a patient with end-stage kidney disease.

The procedure, the first U.S. clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of the bioengineered blood vessel, is a milestone in the field of tissue engineering. The new vein is human cell-based product with no biological properties that would cause organ rejection.

PHOTO ABOVE Building better organs: Lawson and his colleagues implant the bioengineered blood vessel. Shawn Rocco

Using technology developed at Duke and at a spin-off company it started called Humacyte, researchers engineered the vein by cultivating donated human cells on a tubular scaffold to form a vessel. The vessel then is cleansed of the qualities that might trigger an immune response. In pre-clinical tests, the veins have performed better than other

synthetic and animal-based implants. “This is a pioneering event in medicine,” says Jeffrey H. Lawson H.S. ’99, a vascular surgeon and vascular biologist at Duke Medical Center who helped develop the technology and performed the implantation. “We talk about translational technology–developing ideas from the laboratory to clinical practice–and this only happens where there is the multi-disciplinary support and collaboration to cultivate it.”

If the bioengineered veins prove beneficial for hemodialysis patients, the researchers ultimately aim to develop a readily available and durable graft for heart bypass surgeries, which are performed on nearly 400,000 people in the U.S. every year, and to treat blocked blood vessels in the limbs.

“A blood vessel is really an organ–it’s complex tissue,” says Lawson. “We start with this, and one day we may be able to engineer a liver or a kidney or an eye.” 

The bioengineered vein is the product of a fifteen-year collaboration between Lawson and Laura Niklason, cofounder of Humacyte and a former faculty member at Duke who is now at Yale University.

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