Life out on a (bio)limb

Frankenstein's monster may still be placed in the realms of fiction, but with the latest scientific advancements, this might be slowly changing. That's because in what is a world first, a living arm has been grown in a lab. Attached to a rat, the 'biolimb' quickly filled with blood and the animal was even able to flex its new paw.

This breakthrough, carried out at Massachusetts General Hospital in the US, could lead to amputees growing their own replacement limbs. So how did they do it? Firstly, the researchers stripped a rat's dead arm of all of its cells. They then injected it with blood vessels and muscle cells. The limb came back to life and was re-attached to a live rat, which was able to use his new body part.

According to Dr Daniel Weiss, an organ regeneration expert at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington, 'This is science fiction coming to life.' The project's head researcher, Dr Harald Ott of Massachusetts General Hospital's Department of Surgery said: 'We are focusing on the forearm and hand. But the techniques would equally apply to arms, legs and other extremities.'

At the moment, the choices available for those who have lost limbs for whatever reason, be that accident, illness or warfare, are limited to prosthetic replacements or transplants. While both options can improve the quality of life for recipients, they are far from ideal. In the case of transplants, patients have to take powerful immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives in order to weaken the immune system to prevent the body rejecting the new 'foreign' limb.

These new fledgling biolimbs could change all that. Because they are made out of the person's own cells, no immunosuppression is needed. However, there is a long way to go before they become the norm. Even though Dr Ott is making progress — he has moved on from rat limbs and is now working on developing baboon arms — he warns that much work remains to be done and it will be at least a decade before the first human biolimbs are ready to be tested.

Other experts in the field have described the work as a 'notable step forward' but caution that there are still many hurdles to overcome. Some question how complex living systems, such as networks of nerves, can be successfully recreated.

As Frankenstein's creator found out to his trouble, fictitious as that story was, playing 'god' isn't straightforward. But that isn't stopping our modern-day scientists; they're carrying on unabated. In this regard, then, you could say that it's not the sky that's the limit, 'creating life' is.

Prepared by: Jonathan Zur

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