Editorial: The growth of regenerative medicine

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The field is called regenerative medicine, technology that shows promise of repairing or replacing human organs with new ones, healing injuries without surgery and, someday, replacing cartilage lost to osteoarthritis.

New Hampshire could become one of the centers of the new industry and become the next Silicon Valley, says Manchester inventor Dean Kamen. The governor and Legislature, however, aren’t doing what they need to make the potential economic and intellectual boom more likely.

Sever the spinal chord of a zebra fish, an aquarium standby, and it will regrow in a couple of weeks. Remove a limb from a salamander, and it will grow another one indistinguishable from the first. And even some humans, especially when young, can regrow a new fingertip and fingernail on a digit severed above its last joint. Medical science is moving ever closer to performing such wonders.

3-D bioprinters that use biologic materials instead of printer ink are already printing replacement human skin. A University of Connecticut scientist and surgeon believes it will be possible to regenerate human knees sometime in the next decade and regrow human limbs by 2030.

At Ohio State University, a team has succeeded in using genetic material contained in a tiny microchip attached to skin and, with a tiny, Frankenstein-like zap of electricity, reprogram skin cells to produce other types of human cells. Turn a skin cell into say, a vascular system cell, and it will migrate to the site of a wound, spur healing and restore blood flow. Convert skin cells to brain cells and, with a few more steps, it could help stroke victims recover. The technology’s potential is enormous.

Kamen created the portable insulin pump, and he and his team at DEKA Research in Manchester’s millyard produced the Segway human transporter, a device that provides clean water in places that lack it, an external combustion engine that will soon heat and power part of the state’s mental hospital, and other inventions. Their track record helped Kamen and DEKA beat out plenty of other applicants to win $80 million in federal funds to found ARMI, the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute in Manchester. Total funding is now just shy of $300 million.

The government’s aim is to spur technologies that could be used to treat injured soldiers but what’s learned could aid everyone and make New Hampshire a mecca for scientists, production facilities, pharmaceutical companies and more. DEKA will not create the new technologies but use its inventing and engineering expertise to help companies scale up and speed up regenerative medicine technologies so they can be brought to the market more quickly at an affordable cost.

The state’s university system has partnered with DEKA to train students who will one day work in the biotech field. The educational infrastructure is in place, but it’s handicapped by the state’s sorry funding of higher education. New Hampshire regularly ranks last or next to last in state support and its students carry the most debt of any in the nation.

To make New Hampshire the biotech mecca Kamen envisions will require lawmakers to better fund higher education, support the regenerative manufacturing institute and make housing available. A high-tech company that wants to come to New Hampshire can’t do so if its workers can’t afford a home.

Regenerative medicine is expected to become a massive economic engine, one that will create jobs and improve lives while lowering health care costs. The Legislature should be doing all it can to make sure that at least some of that engine is designed and made in New Hampshire.