​How to Grow an Artificial Penis

The scientists that gave us lab-grown vaginas are now testing lab-grown penises. Equal opportunity genital regeneration.

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Oct 6 2014, 7:50pm

Lab-grown penises will be made available to men with genital injuries and abnormalities within five years, according to scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. 

If you're skeptical of that timeline, it's worth knowing that researchers at the institute have already transplanted lab-grown vaginas into women born without them. They've also achieved major successes with other artificial organs, so their credentials in this field are pretty sterling.

That said, creating artificial penises does present a bevy of unique challenges, so it's no surprise that the institute's approach to building them is equal parts ingenious and bizarre.

In their trials, researchers make "scaffolds" of rabbit penises by washing donor organs in detergent to kill all the living cells. This process leaves a collagen frame that can be seeded with penile cells from the recipient rabbit. The lab-grown penis is specifically rich with cultivated muscle and endothelial cells, which are essential for erectile function.

A breakdown of how 3D-printed tissues come to be from a 2014 paper in Nature Biotechnology. The full description is available online.

The cell cultivation and scaffold creation takes weeks, but in the end, the rabbits who had new penises grafted onto their bodies gained sexual and reproductive ability. Indeed, when 12 of the newly-phallused males were put into cages with females, they mated within a minute, resulting in four pregnancies.

"The rabbit studies were very encouraging," said institute director Anthony Atala in an interview with the Guardian. Atala is an emerging icon of biomedical futurism, especially after his 2011 Ted Talk about 3D printing kidneys. He's optimistic that lab-grown penises will be available to men in five years, but acknowledges that there are a lot of hurdles to clear before then.

"To get approval for humans we need all the safety and quality assurance data, we need to show that the materials aren't toxic, and we have to spell out the manufacturing process, step by step," he said.

When the treatment does become available to men, it will offer a huge improvement over current penile replacement surgeries, which rely on prosthetics encased in skin grafts from the patient's arm or thigh. The Wake Forest Institute approach, in contrast, contains real erectile cells introduced to a real donor penis, allowing recipients to gain (or regain) biologically normal genitals.

The treatment would aid men with congenital abnormalities as well as men who have suffered injuries (which is why the research secured funded by the US Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine). It can't be used for female-to-male sex transitions, because the process requires extracting penile tissue from the patient.

However, the treatment will be very helpful to baby boys with ambiguous genitalia. This abnormality is often corrected by removing the male genitals and raising the child as a female, which can understandably lead to serious emotional complications later in life. Grafting a lab-grown penis onto these babies could help.

"Imagine being genetically male but living as a woman," Atala said of the condition. "It's a firmly devastating problem that we hope to help with."