By Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American, October 29, 2009  —  J. Craig Venter, the genomic scientist and founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, was speaking yesterday about the potential for techniques involved in the field of synthetic life to improve medicine, but his words could have been applied to the all the talks during the opening session of TED MED (“TED” is for technology, entertainment, design). The conference is running from October 27 through 30 at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. Speakers also described advances in using stem cells for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

Venter reviewed recent advances in “software building its own hardware.” That is, by inserting DNA from one organism into another, scientists have been able to use existing cellular machinery to read that DNA-transforming one species to another. He mentioned Phase II clinical trials of a vaccine for meningitis developed with the technique.

Moving DNA into stem cells through therapeutic cloning could treat diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said Daniel Kraft of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “You could bank them for the future, when you might need them,” he said.

Other researchers are seeding cells onto scaffolds with the hopes of eventually building replacement tissue and organs. “Every 30 seconds, a person dies of a disease that could have been solved with tissue replacement,” said Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and chair of urology at Wake Forest University. During the past decade, the number of patients waiting for organs has doubled while donations have remained flat, added Atala. Although stem cells are needed for such tissues as heart, liver and pancreas, he said, tissue-specific cells from the patient could be used to grow other new organs in the future.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009                

TEDMED 2009 – Day 1

Filed under: Medgadget Exclusive


A bladder grown at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Yesterday we settled into our hotel room in San Diego, grabbed a burger, and went straight to session one of TEDMED. The first set of speakers consisted of a beat poet and performance artist Sekou Andrews, synthetic geneticist  Craig Venter, regenerative medicine gurus Daniel Kraft, Anthony Atala, and Damien Bates, magician Eric Mead, ER and Law and Order SVU writer  Neal Baer, geographic medicine popularizer Bill Davenhall, and songwriter Jill Sobule.

Sekou Andrews kicked off the conference with an energetic, free-flowing poem of sorts about health care, rhyming a mash-up of medical terms and concepts to get the crowd excited for the conference at hand.

After him, Craig Venter took the stage and chatted about synthetic biology and how his team synthesized the entire bacterium of Mycoplasma genitalium from four bottles of nucleotides (for a good overview of synthetic biology, take a look at this New Yorker piece). The main idea that kept emerging in his talk is that the DNA of a life form is analogous to the software and then all of the hardware is sculpted upon its code. It intuitively made sense, but the team was surprised when they actually were able to transplant the DNA of one bacterium into another, which lead the recipient organism to undergo physiologic metamorphosis.

Next we heard from a series of speakers involved with regenerative medicine. Daniel Kraft (flashback: MarrowMiner) spoke of the role of stem cells in medicine and how he discovered a better way to harvest them from the pelvis.


Damien Bates, the chief medical officer of Organogenesis, the company behind biologic wound healing film Apligraf, passed around a sample of their wound healing tissue for people to feel as well as talked about how the skin heals and how it can be aided by regenerative biology.

Anthony Atala, from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, talked about the various methods his research center is using to grow specific tissues and organs. He described much of the tissue creation process as sort of building the layers of a cake, with each tissue type placed one on top of the other. For linearly organized organs, such as arteries, this isn’t so much of a problem, because you can just grow layers upon layers of tissues. However, for the more complicated, highly solid organs with lots of blood vessels, this methodology breaks down, and the scientists have to either use some sort of pre-made matrix or need to harvest tissues from other sources and de-cellularize them, leaving behind only the collagen scaffold that can be populated by cells.

To wrap up the hard science part of things, Bill Davenhall talked about the importance of adding more environmental data to patients’ charts, under the hypothesis that living in some environments predisposes a person to certain diseases, and this sort of geo-medicine data might be useful to practicing clinicians.

Lastly, Neal Bear, writer and producer of ER and Law and Order SVU, discussed story telling in medicine, and Jill Sobule sang a lighthearted song about the apocalypse (surprisingly not as depressing as it sounds).

That’s all for today.


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