Biotech tries its hand at artificial organs

A partial artificial organ -- an artificial urinary tissue to be implanted into a patient.

Refrigerator-size incubators at the Tengion lab.

Tengion workers at their facility in suburban Philadelphia.

Replacement bladder tissue growing inside a sterile tube known as a bioreactor.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: So here's a meeting I'd guess most of you won't be at: The American Society for Artificial Internal Organs gets together later this week in Baltimore. Artificial not meaning mechanical. They'll be talking about the latest technologies in growing new organs from scratch -- bladders and kidneys and the like.

We're going to need them. Life expectancy in this country is pushing 80. A lot of people are already out-living their organs at a cost of hundreds of millions of health care dollars every year. And that is where artificial organs come in.

From the Marketplace Health Desk at WHYY, Kerry Grens reports.


Kerry Grens: I'm standing on a grated metal walkway, suspended among a buzzing labyrinth of giant silver air ducts and piping. This $18 million ventilation system hangs above the future manufacturing facility for Tengion, a biotechnology company in suburban Philadelphia.

MARK Stejbach: To me it looks a little bit like one of those futuristic space stations where you've created everything to sustain life on another planet. But it's really just to sustain the facility downstairs.

Mark Stejbach is a Tengion vice president. Downstairs is where Tengion will be creating human tissue to replace the bladder. The maze of ventilation is there to create a perfectly antiseptic environment. No outside, artificial air allowed -- let alone dirty shoes or street clothes.

We gown up in white jump suits, booties and bonnets to take a tour of the labs.

Stejbach: Just a couple years ago it was a furniture warehouse, so it was just empty space.

It's still pretty empty. Just a few refrigerator-size incubators stacked in the middle of the room. Tengion's product is still being tested in humans. It's also very elementary at this point, doing only part of the work of the bladder. Ultimately, though, the company aims to produce a fully functional organ. But why build the factory before the product is even approved? Stejbach says Tengion needed to convince investors that constructing artificial organs is possible.

DUANE Nash: The whole field has tremendous potential. In fact, it has the potential to completely revolutionize medicine.

Duane Nash is a vice president for equity research at Wedbush Securities. He points out that thousands of people die each year waiting for heart or kidney transplants. Six percent of Medicare's budget is spent on kidney failure alone. The need for new organs is in the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions. But no one's produced one yet.

Nash: For better or for worse our imagination has exceeded our technical abilities for the past decade or so.

Nash says Tengion's bladder tissue shows that the technology is catching up. The bigger obstacle is money.

Nash: At the moment with the market kind of jumping up and down, investors overall are fairly cautious and there's not tremendous appetite right now to jump into a very risky field.

Risky because the technology could fail, but also because health insurance companies may not cover these new treatments -- especially ones that could be very expensive.

Gary Kurtzman is a life sciences investor with Safeguard Scientifics, and he helped fund Tengion. He says it's much harder now to get new therapies approved by regulators and insurers. And health care reform -- aimed at controlling costs -- only makes it harder. Kurtzman says companies need big results.

GARY Kurtzman: It's much easier to conceive of making a case to an insurance company or to Medicare for something that really is fundamentally better and fundamentally different. Not just prolonging life or incrementally changing the patient's condition, but actually restoring essentially the patient back to as good as new.

And that's precisely what replacement organs would do. But analyst Duane Nash is doubtful the field will actually reach full-functioning replacement organs in the first generation of products. Tengion is among the most advanced companies in growing internal organs, but even their artificial bladder isn't close yet to mimicking the original. Nash says investors and insurers will have to be happy enough with incremental in the mean time.

In Philadelphia, I'm Kerry Grens, for Marketplace.

Refrigerator-size incubators at the Tengion lab.

Tengion workers at their facility in suburban Philadelphia.

Replacement bladder tissue growing inside a sterile tube known as a bioreactor.

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