As boys growing up in Omaha, the Vacanti brothers — Jay, Marty, Frank and Chuck — took apart everything from toys to car engines. Today, they’re all physicians at Harvard, and they tinker with a purpose: to ease the transplant-organ shortage. Pioneers in a new specialty called tissue engineering, their goal is to fashion replacement body parts from scratch, using a person’s own cells.
The brothers have grown protective cartilage over the heart of a 12-year-old’s defective sternum, produced a human-shaped ear on the back of a mouse, even figured out how to grow spinal cord in rats’ spinal canals, a promising first step to doing the same for humans. Together, they hold nearly 90 patents.
Says Jay: “Five living tissues are already in human use or trials. The promise of tissue engineering becomes more real every year.”