Believe it or not, scientists in North Carolina have managed to grow human penises in the lab, and may only be a few years away from testing them by transplanting them onto men.
This could prove to be a very positive breakthrough for men suffering from penile congenital abnormalities, injury from trauma, damage from disease, or for those who have undergone penile surgery or removal.
While it might sound like the stuff of science fiction, transplants of lab-grown rabbit penises have already proved a success, with all of the male rabbits involved in the experiment attempting to mate and with some even successfully reproducing.
There have also been successful transplants of other bio-engineered human organs in recent years, which was no doubt very encouraging for the scientists involved in this research and development.
Why the delay?
Because they are a very complex organ in terms of structure, cell density and the uniqueness of the erectile tissue, growing penises in the lab has been a rather slow process. The scientists involved also need to be sure of safety and effectiveness before performing the first transplant. They are presently putting the lab-grown penises through their paces – so to speak! – to test for the ability to withstand wear and tear and to work as anticipated.
Also, while there has been success with the rabbit experiments, human penises are much larger, and growing them successfully has been a much more involved process.
Why not just transplant from donors?
At the present time, donor penises can be transplanted onto patients but the risk of rejection warrants drug treatment – complete with the potential for unpleasant side effects. Direct penile transplants like this can also have a psychological effect on patients, because of the rather intimate nature of the organ itself.
Other current treatments for men with penile damage include penis reconstruction using tissue taken from the forearm or thigh, along with prosthetic implants for producing erections.
How does this differ from donor transplants?
Growing penises in a laboratory is done using cells from the intended recipient. It involves taking a donor penis and washing it in a detergent of enzymes to remove donor cells, leaving the collagen ‘scaffolding’ or basic structure remaining. Cells from the live patient which have been grown in cultures are then seeded onto the penile structure to rebuild the organ. It is hoped that this method will overcome the problem of donor organ rejection.
What is the next step?
Approval from the US FDA will need to be sought before any transplants can commence. The lead scientist involved in this work, Professor Anthony Atala, expects this to occur within five years, but anticipates that the initial stages will likely involve growing smaller lengths for treating damaged penises and performing only the partial replacement of organs.
Either way, the future for urology procedures for men suffering from severe penile injury, disease or erectile dysfunction may just be very positive indeed as a result of all the work done by Dr Atala and his team.