The human body has an incredible ability to repair itself after injury, but its capacity for self-regeneration does have limits. And those limits are a source of frustration for kidney doctor Philip Marsden whenever he has to make a diagnosis of organ failure.
“It always frustrated me as a caregiver to talk to the parents of a child whose kidneys had shut down. ‘Why aren’t they healing properly?'” says Marsden.
Marsden works at St. Michael’s Hospital and is also a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design group. He hopes that one day we will understand organ development and repair so well that it will be possible to restore them using the same processes that happen after conception, when all the organs of the body form from a single egg.
“I’m a kidney transplanter, but at its heart I’m interested in what goes wrong with the organs in our body when they get injured,” adds Marsden.
“In kidney disease, the kidney is good at repairing, but not great; and sadly, here in Canada, there are thousands of patients waiting for organ transplants. Our goal is to get fewer patients needing a transplant by making their kidneys regenerate and fix themselves.”
The need will only grow as life expectancies continue to rise, as the risk of organ failure increases with age.
“Wouldn’t it be great to age in a healthy fashion where our organs don’t start to progressively shut down?” says Marsden. “That’s the challenge we have right now: that our ability to fix broken organs is catching up with us, and it’s a major challenge.”
Marsden’s goal is to eliminate the need for chemicals or organ transplants to treat organ failure. Instead his research looks at how organ systems can repair themselves from the ground up, just like they originally form in the embryo.
By looking to the earliest events in our development, it could be possible to age better, and to live longer and healthier lives.