Keith Murphy, the CEO of the San Diego-based company Organovo, told CNA about his company's technology that creates living human tissues in a technique known as "bioprinting."
"We take cells of many different types and we print them with a 3-D printer to make tissues," he said. "It's a little like making something out of Legos, where you're going to actually place specific blocks of specific colors in a position and you're going to build something up layer by layer. Except that we use cells as a blocks."
"You put different cell types on top of each other or next to each other. You create a pattern, you put that into a computer, and the automated system deposits the cells and creates a living tissue. All the cells will join together and make one living tissue."
Just as 3-D printers use plastic or metal, human tissues can be printed in a way useful for research and, perhaps one day, transplant.
Murphy's company creates human tissue for drug research.
"We're so reliant on animal models for drugs and drug discovery," he said. Research like his company's could help find new drugs for conditions like fibrosis and Alzheimer's disease, where good animal research models are lacking.
In three or four years, Organovo hopes to start clinical trials for a "liver patch" to help diseased or failing organs. The treatment could extend the waiting period for a person who needs a liver transplant.
While Catholic teaching forbids research on embryonic stem cells – which requires the destruction of humans at the early embryonic stage – it allows and even encourages research on adult stem cells, taken from developed tissue without destroying a human life.
"Most cell therapies these days are not embryonic anymore," Murphy explained. "Not a lot of companies have used embryonic stem cells as therapies, in part just because you stay away from any ethical issues if you go a different route."
Embryonic stem cell treatments tend to rely on injection into the bloodstream, while Organovo's patching technology could allow a large amount of cells to go "exactly where you want them and stay there."
He said adult stem cells have also shown promise in fighting immune diseases, strokes and Crohn's Disease.
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Embryonic stem cells, in contrast, have failed to yield results in any treatment or cure, despite large amounts of government funding.
Archbishop Tighe said that the Church has always tried to ensure that researchers would prioritize adult stem cell research, which avoids the ethical problem of embryonic stem cells.
"This is a form of research that doesn't have that ethical difficulty about it. What's reassuring is that the experts seem to be saying that it's also a more efficient form of research. It's giving more results," he said of the adult stem cells.
He said such research examines "forms of healing that come from within our own God-given bodies." He suggested that the Church's lack of a commercial interest in the research can help it serve as an "honest broker" to ensure good attention.
The archbishop said it is important that the research benefit the whole world and not just address the diseases prioritized in the technologically advanced West. It is also important that financial approaches to the research both respect those who have invested in new medicine and ensure that humanity's benefits can be shared by everyone.
Discoveries about nature's capacity to cure itself might also draw from "some of the traditional wisdom that was embodied in traditional medicine" in the less developed parts of the world, he suggested.