Welcome to the first article in our five-part Spotlight Series on one of the most exciting frontiers of scientific research and innovation, regenerative medicine.

Throughout this series, we will find out more about what regenerative medicine encompasses, its historical origins, recent advances in the lab and the clinic, the current standard of care, and look over the horizon to what the future holds for the sector.

What is regenerative medicine?

Regenerative medicine refers to the field of study harnessing the body’s innate ability to repair, restore or establish normal function due to damage or impairment, whether through birth, disease, trauma or aging. The appeal of regenerative medicine lies in the potential to utilise normal repair mechanisms within our body to restore function to a damaged organ, or to treat previously incurable diseases such as cancer.

“Regenerative medicine is the process of creating living, functional tissues to repair or replace tissue or organ function lost due to age, disease, damage, or congenital defects. This field holds the promise of regenerating damaged tissues and organs in the body by stimulating previously irreparable organs to heal themselves. Regenerative medicine also empowers scientists to grow tissues and organs in the laboratory and safely implant them when the body cannot heal itself.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2006

Stem cell therapies are the most well-known arm of regenerative medicine, however the field also includes other cell therapies (such as CAR T cell therapies), genetic therapies, nanotechnology and biomedical engineering, and reprogramming of cells and tissue.

Experts in the field come from a plethora of backgrounds and expertise. Biomedical engineers and computer scientists might come together on how to generate 3D-printed biologically compatible scaffolds to be implanted into a site of injury, in order to promote formation of new tissue and cell regeneration. Clinicians and stem cell scientists could collaborate on an autologous stem cell therapy, from isolating appropriate adult stem cells from an individual, treating or activating the stem cells in the laboratory and re-injecting the stem cells to the same individual at a site of injury to repair damage. Developmental biologists are working on how to reprogram embryonic stem cells to grow tissues and organs in the lab, and provide an avenue for thousands of people waiting on an organ transplant list.

The future is bright

Regenerative medicine has truly come to the forefront in the last decade. Perhaps the superstar of the sector is chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, including Kymriah ® for treating leukemia (by Novartis) and Yescarta ® for treating lymphoma (by Gilead Sciences), both of which received FDA Approval in the U.S.A. in 2017. CAR T-cell therapies isolate T cells (a type of immune cell) from a patient suffering from cancer, genetically edit these T cells in the lab so that the T cells express a CAR, and transplant the edited CAR T-cells back into the patient. The T cells now express CARs, which are cell surface receptors that target cancer cells, thereby bringing the CAR-T cell into contact with the cancer cells so that the CAR-T cells can kill the cancer cells. CAR-T cell therapies have taken the biotechnology industry by storm, resulting in a number of large mergers and acquisitions of regenerative medicine companies, and an increasingly competitive and dense patent landscape.

On the other hand, relatively established cell therapies such as bone marrow transplantation have matured and is expected to be a US$15 billion market by 2027. The surge is thought to be driven by the growing prevalence of cancer and anemia patients, who have compromised bone marrow and require transplanted stem cells to repair and replace the injured cells.

The regenerative medicine sector globally is projected to develop into a US$120 billion market by 2035 (UK Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, AusBiotech 2018 report). A recent draft strategic roadmap released by a consortium of leading companies in the regenerative medicine landscape in Australia suggests that proper investment and development of our manufacturing capabilities would translate to at least AUD$6 billion in revenue and 6,000 new jobs for Australia in the same timeframe.

Australia remains one of the leaders in basic research for the regenerative medicine sector, ranking 10th in the world for publications (2nd when adjusted on a per capita basis). Proper buy-in and investment from industry and the government at this key turning point would lead to a significant boost to the Australian regenerative medicine ecosystem, as well as early access to ground-breaking therapies for patients.

In the next part of the series, we discuss the historical origins of regenerative medicine.