The next step is to try to recreate the entire organ from scratch. The technique could make it possible to reconstruct the penises of men who have suffered injuries or those of children born with genital abnormalities. "If you have a child born with ambiguous genitalia, it's a life-changing event," says Anthony Atala of Harvard Medical School, whose team carried out the work.
It could also provide an alternative to the crude methods currently used to enlarge the organ, such as injecting fat cells or cutting the penis's suspensory ligament and "pulling out" more of the internal part. Instead, a patient would have penile cells removed by a doctor and, a few weeks later, the organ or parts of it grown using the cells could be surgically implanted.
While the particular nature of the research is likely to attract much attention, it's also one of the most impressive attempts at tissue and organ engineering to date. "The penis is more complex than any of the organs we have engineered so far," says Atala, whose team has already created fully functional bladders that may soon be implanted in people.
The penis is more difficult to recreate because it has more functions and, unlike the bladder, is also a solid organ. It consists of three main cylinders, encased in an outer layer of connective tissue, skin, blood vessels and nerves (see Graphic). The two biggest cylinders, made of spongy material that swells during an erection, are the corpora cavernosa. The third tube encases the urethra.
Of those structures, the corpus cavernosum is the most challenging to replace or reconstruct. It contains specialised muscle and endothelial cells- the cells that line blood vessels- and its structure is hard to mimic. Yet this is the part t
Contact: Claire Bowles