by: Michael Hennessey

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — The frontline of regenerative medicine has stood in Winston-Salem for decades. Today, with the leadership that’s been in place over that period of time, that technology is headed out of this world. 

“We started this work over 30 years ago, actually,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine director. “So, a long time ago.” 

As Atala explains, the institute creates tissues and organs, as well as therapies to help treat patients. At the start, he explained, the greatest challenge was trying to get cells to grow. Now, they can grow every major cell type. 

“It takes time to get cells to grow, to put cells together, creating tissues, creating tissues to make organs,” he said. 

In the last three years, Atala said, the institute has scaled up its 3D printing, creating various types of organs, beginning with flat structures – such as skin – which he says are the least complex because they’re flat, to tubular organs, “and then finally followed by solid organs like the heart, the kidneys, the lungs, which are in fact the most complex.” 

The next step is taking these creations literally out of this world. 

In April, Axiom Space announced it’s coming to Winston-Salem in a three-way partnership alongside WFIRM and the RegenMed Development Organization. Axiom Space is developing a space station which will replace the International Space Station, which NASA plans to decommission in 2031. 

“They’re really interested in making sure we can get manufacturing in space, and especially regenerative medicine manufacturing,” Atala detailed.  

Atala says they’ll be training the next generation of astronauts to create the tissues in space. 

“One of the main things is how can we grow cells in space and then bring those cells back here and learn how to make them better? Another is how do we create tissues that we can implant into our space travelers,” he added. 

Demand, however, has gone up as humans continue to live longer. 

“One of the major challenges we have is there are not enough organs to go around for transplantations,” Atala said. 

Atala says it takes about 4 to 6 weeks for an organ to be ready to implant from when they first start creating the tissue.