to replace your diseased or worn-out organs with new, laboratory-fresh models made from your own cells. Your heart is failing? New muscle tissue or even an entire heart could be ordered up before a transplant becomes critical. Kidneys not working? Instead of dialysis, you could have a new one implanted. Such is the vision of Gabor Forgacs, the University of Missouri's George H. Vineyard Professor of Physics.
In Forgacs' basement laboratory, he is demonstrating that it is possible to "print" blood vessel-like structures. By methodically laying down circles of small spheres packed with human cells and then stacking layers of these circles one on top of another, he is able to create living cylinders of tissue, complete structures with the multiple layers of cells found in actual human veins and arteries.
Using the same techniques, he has taken cells from chicken hearts and built them into tissues that pulse just as the heart did. His goal is to make blood vessels that will be useful for surgery and, one day, build entire replacement organs in the laboratory.
Forgacs (pronounced FOR-gotch) is among the scores of researchers worldwide in the exciting field of tissue engineering, men and women who are pursuing the dream of building organs to order for the growing numbers of people desperately in need of organ transplants. Engineered bones, kidneys, hearts, and livers are all possibilities, each built from cells cultured from the individual patients receiving the organs. Tissue rejection would become a problem of the past.
Forgacs, who came to Missouri in 2000, brings a unique perspective to tissue engineering. Before working as a biologist, Forgacs started his scientific career in his native Hungary as a theoretical physicist. "Physicists are adventurous people," he says. "They want to go where the challenges are. Biology is an incredible challenge."
As a physicist, Forgacs expresses reservations about the time-consuming approach many biologists bring to tissue engineering. "Biologists are incredibly bright people. It's enlightening to see how they think about a problem. But I don't wish to spend a career solving problems by trial and error," Forgacs says. "We want to approach this practically."
Working with a $5 million National Science Foundation grant and a large international team of scientists, Forgacs has pioneered procedures for engineering tissues that differ radically from the conventional methods used by most other researchers in the field.
"He's a very creative force in science," said Stuart Newman, a developmental biologist at New York Medical College and member of Forgacs' research team. "Theoretical physics is as abstract and distant as you can get from the nuts and bolts of things, but he has a knack for understanding the practical side."