Dr George W. Weightman, chief operating officer of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, US, is a pioneer in creating living tissues that can replace damaged organs. Weightman participated in the Innovative Solutions for Health Challenges session at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit 2009. Excerpts from an interview.
How did the idea of creating cells and tissues in a lab come about?
The idea came to my boss, Dr A. Atala, some 11 years ago. One of his kid patients was suffering from a congenital birth defect, because of which her bladder had been badly damaged. Finally, he decided to regenerate the organ using the patient’s own cells. And the experiment was a success.
How far has the research reached in your institute?
If things go as planned, in the next decade or so we will be ready with a full-fledged laboratory-grown organ like a kidney or maybe a heart.
Stem cell research has been quite controversial because of the use of embryonic stem cells. How do you tackle that issue?
We don’t use stem cells not only for the ethical reasons. Embryonic stem cells have shown to be forming tumours very easily. Our scientists have found a more potent source of stem cells — amniotic fluid and placenta.
Does it mean that the problem of finding a donor for transplantation will be completely solved with this technology?
It may not solve the entire problem, but it will play a big part in mitigating it.
What are your impressions of the Indian healthcare system?
In the US, the focus is on paying for people who are sick, but in India, the emphasis is on not letting people fall sick. The focus is on prevention, which is any day a better thing to do. Also, the quality of medicine in India is very good. More and more Americans are coming to India for certain procedures, as they know they can get them done at half the price without compromising on the quality. The quality is there, you guys just need to expand.