Anthony Atala: Surgeon



Anthony Atala asks, “Can we grow organs instead of transplanting them?” His lab at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is doing just that — engineering over 30 tissues and whole organs., April 12, 2011  —  If there was ever a point in your career to unleash your inner magician, it’s at a TED conference, hands down. TED has emerged as the premier global event for satiating the intelligentsia’s appetite for the cutting edge and has made overnight rock stars out of numerous speakers. This year has turned out to be no different and may very well be Dr. Anthony Atala’s coming out event as he brashly demonstrated the tissue regeneration technology he has been working on for 20 years by using a 3D printer to generate a kidney on stage. Dr. Atala is THE man in regenerative medicine and a favorite at Singularity Hub, where we’ve profiled his work previously, but this year he went all out. We just had to provide an update on what he pulled out of his hat at TED.

In case you haven’t heard of him, Dr. Atala is the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Chair and Professor of Urology, and a surgeon. He has spent 20 years working in the area of regenerative medicine – in other words, he is growing human organs. Reiterating some of his points from the TEDMED talk he gave in January of 2010 but under a time constraint, Dr. Atala can only give a zoo-tour treatment of years of research in his TED talk. He first shows an artificial heart valve that beats, followed by an engineered human bladder that was generated from a scaffold sutured together to match a 3D image of the organ. The scaffold was coated with patient cells and incubated for a few weeks in an oven at physiological conditions to generate a new bladder. Next, he shows the underlying vasculature of a liver that was produced by the washing away of cells from a salvaged liver, which can later serve as a template for patient liver cells to grow on.  Finally, he turns to desktop ink-jet printers in which cells replace the ink and layer by layer, a 3D object can be printed in 40 minutes, such as a piece of bone implanted in a real patient. He then casts the vision of the future in which new 3D printers can be designed where a scanner would first create a relief-like map of a patient’s wound and then printing would be done directly on the patient to build up the layers of the regenerated tissue.  Check out Atala’s TED talk below:



2011: Printing a Human Kidney


At the two-thirds mark in his talk, Dr. Atala definitely had the audience’s interest, so it was time to build up the show stopper. He starts by saying, “90% of the patients on the transplant list are actually waiting for a kidney. Patients are dying every day because we don’t have enough of those organs to go around.”

He describes how they reconstruct the entire volume of a kidney from CT scans of patients, something that is becoming increasingly popular when engineering replacements for the body, and this information is processed to create scans of single layers, much like the slices from an MRI. These scans become the instructions for how the layers of cells are to be printed to generate a patient-specific kidney. Dr. Atala then reveals that there happens to be a printer on the stage and is about halfway through the 7-hour task of printing the kidney prototype. To show the audience what a bioengineered kidney looks like, the finished product is brought out that has the appearance of a raw chicken breast, but then again, it is made out of real human cells. When he shows the kidney to the audience, it gets its own applause. And showing it off is important because ratcheting up public attention about both the supply-demand problems of organs and efforts toward novel solutions not only justifies the funding of scientific research, but offers hope for many who are facing the prospect of joining the transplant list, even if this kidney is experimental and a clinical version is in the distance.

Now the search for new technologies to restore functional tissue has been possible because of three developments in the field, which Dr. Atala mentioned earlier in his talk. First, he highlighted that the challenge of designing suitable biomaterials for organ engineering. Biomaterials are important because they are shaped into a 3D scaffold which is then coated with actual patient cells one layer at a time to rebuild the organ. Second, he pointed out that it used to be difficult to grow human cells outside of the body, but numerous advances have made this trivial for most cells, with a few notable exceptions, including liver, pancreatic, and nerve cells. Finally, Dr. Atala stated that one of the greatest challenges in bioengineering has been recreating the vasculature of organs, but new fabrication techniques with biomaterials allows for vessels to be constructed. He even showed a slide from work in 1996 of a diseased and regenerated vessel in an actual patient using the biomaterial technology they developed.

While much of the media is focusing on the printed kidney in Dr. Atala’s hands, and erroneously reporting that it was a functional kidney, this was not his finale.

The wow moment came after a short video about Luke Massella, now a communications major at the University of Connecticut. As a child, he was born with spina bifida. At 10 years old and after a dozen surgeries, he agreed to an experimental surgery to receive a regenerated bladder from his own cells. He explains how after the surgery he became a wrestler and has been able to have a normal life. The video ends, the audience gives a standing ovation, and humbly Dr. Atala thanks the audience. That’s when the big reveal happened. Luke walks out on stage and talks about the experience in more detail, even getting choked up at one point reflecting on what the surgery meant for him. And this is why Dr. Atala is the man. He has spent a career developing tissue-fabricating technologies and his work is gaining more traction as the advances blow people away. But in the end, it’s about changing the course of a single individual’s life. While we’re in an era that is shaped by emergent technologies and the next big things, researchers like Dr. Atala that fuel innovation out of a tenacious desire to help people are the kind of minds we need at the helm.

Dr. Atala began his presentation saying, “There’s actually a major health crisis today in terms of the shortage of organs,” and laid out the scope of the crisis: “In the last ten years, the number of patients requiring an organ has doubled, while in the same time, the actual number of transplants has barely gone up.” With an aging population, this divergent trend is bound to continue so work in bioengineered organs is not just a cool demonstration of futuristic technology — it is desperately needed.

[Image: TED]

[Source: TED, Principles of Regenerative Medicine]



Why you should listen to him:

Anthony Atala is the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where his work focuses on growing and regenerating tissues and organs. His team engineered the first lab-grown organ to be implanted into a human — a bladder — and is developing experimental fabrication technology that can “print” human tissue on demand.

In 2007, Atala and a team of Harvard University researchers showed that stem cells can be harvested from the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. This and other breakthroughs in the development of smart bio-materials and tissue fabrication technology promises to revolutionize the practice of medicine.

“Anthony Atala bakes things that will make you feel good inside, but we’re not talking cakes and muffins.”





About this talk

Surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrates an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney. Using similar technology, Dr. Atala’s young patient Luke Massella received an engineered bladder 10 years ago; we meet him onstage.




2011:  Printing a Human Kidney


2010: Growing Organs


Anthony Atala MD

Anthony Atala, M.D., is the W.H. Boyce Professor and Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and Chair of the Department of Urology at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North CarolinaRegenerative medicine is “a practice that aims to refurbish diseased or damaged tissue using the body’s own healthy cells.”


Atala was born in Peru in 1958, grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, and comes from a large family of Arab(Syria/Lebanon) descent. Atala attended the University of Miami and has an undergraduate degree in Psychology. He went to medical school at the University of Louisville where he also completed his residency in urology. He was a fellow at the Harvard Medical School affiliated Children’s Hospital Boston from 1990-1992 where he trained under world renowned pediatric urologic surgeons Alan Retik and Hardy Hendren. He served as the Director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Cellular Therapeutics at Children’s Hospital Boston.  His work there involved growing human tissues and organs to replace those damaged by disease or defects. This work became important due to shortages in the organ-donor program.

Dr. Atala continued his work in Tissue engineering and Printable organs at Wake Forest University in 2004.  Dr. Atala led the team that developed the first lab-grown organ, a bladder, to be implanted into a human.

Aside from his ground breaking research, Dr. Atala is also tends to clinical and administrative responsibilities. He operates regularly and runs a busy clinic at the North Carolina Baptist Hospital, the teaching hospital of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He is also in charge of a rapidly growing urology department and has been successful in recruiting other renowned faculty to Wake Forest such as Gopal Badlani, James Yoo and Gordon McLorie.

Along with Harvard University researchers and as described in the journal Nature Biotechnology, he has announced that stem cells with enormous potential can be harvested from the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. These amniotic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can be manipulated to differentiate into various types of mature cells that make up nerve, muscle, bone, and other tissues while avoiding the problems of tumor formation and ethical concerns that are associated with embryonic stem cells

With respect to the amniotic fluid stem cells (“AFS” cells), Dr. Atala said the following:

“The cells come from the foetus, which breathes and sucks in, then excretes, the amniotic fluid throughout pregnancy;”

“Like embryonic stem cells, they appear to thrive in lab dishes for years, while normal cells, called somatic cells, die after a time;”

“They are easier to grow than human embryonic stem cells. And, unlike embryonic stem cells, they do not form a type of benign tumour called a teratoma;” and

“A bank with 100,000 specimens of the amniotic stem cells theoretically could supply 99 per cent of the US population with perfect genetic matches for transplants.”

Dr. Atala’s work was seized on by opponents of the Embryonic Stem Cell Research Bill (a part of the 100-Hour Plan of the Democratic Party in the 110th United States Congress) as a more moral alternative. He wrote a letter saying, inter alia, “Some may be interpreting my research as a substitute for the need to pursue other forms of regenerative medicine therapies, such as those involving embryonic stem cells. I disagree with that assertion.”


  1. ^ a b Scientist at Work: Anthony Atala. A Tissue Engineer Sows Cells and Grows Organs
  2. ^ A Tissue Engineer Sows Cells and Grows Organs The New York Times
  3. ^ House Resumes Stem Cell Research Debate



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David Christian: Historian



David Christian teaches an ambitious world history course that tells the tale of the entire universe — from the Big Bang 13 billion years ago to present day.

Why you should listen to him:

David Christian is by training a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, but since the 1980s he has become interested in world history on very large scales. He has written on the social and material history of the 19th-century Russian peasantry, in particular on aspects of diet and the role of alcohol. In 1989, he began teaching courses on “Big History,” surveying the past on the largest possible scales, including those of biology and astronomy.

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Steven Pinker: Linguist



Linguist Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts — the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest.

Why you should listen to him:

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