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The Science Blog

23/10/2014

Rabbits used in grisly research to grow penises

According to researchers in the USA, lab-grown penises might soon be available for transplantation in humans; a so-called ‘breakthrough’ that comes after a series of gruesome tests in rabbits.

After over a decade of trial-and-error testing in animals, scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina finally managed to grow and transplant a fully functional penis in rabbits in 2008.1 In this study, the penises of ’donor rabbits‘ were dissected and soaked in a special detergent to leave behind a structural scaffold of the penis. Cells were then taken from the penises of 12 ’experimental rabbits,’ which were implanted onto the penis scaffold and encouraged to grow. Once the structures were ready, the same rabbits were anesthetised so that their natural penises could be surgically removed and replaced with their lab-grown penises. Twelve additional rabbits had their penises removed and replaced with the scaffold only; three rabbits just had their penises removed. The rabbits were then placed into cages with female rabbits and were observed to see whether they could get an erection, ejaculate, have sex properly and even impregnate a female up to six months after the operation.2

It is hoped that this technology could soon be used to help people who have lost their penises through injury, cancer or genetic defects. However, despite their ‘success’ in rabbits six years ago, difficulties in applying this technique to humans means that approval for the first human test will be some way off and, even then, it will only focus on partial penis replacement. According to Professor Atala, the lead researcher, “Even though we can make them in a very small mammal, we have to tweak the technology, the processes, the ratio of cells and so on, to get larger and larger structures. That’s pretty much what we’ve been doing since the rabbits […] In the end we’re aiming for the entire size of the organ. But in reality our first target is going to be partial replacement of the organ.

Other treatment options, including phalloplasty (reconstruction of the penis using grafts from other areas of the body) and allotransplantation (penis transplant from a donor) are already in use. Commenting on an article in the Gay Star Times last week3, the BUAV’s Head of Science, Dr. Katy Taylor said, “We are shocked to hear that rabbits are being used in this type of research. There are pioneering techniques already being used and it is not necessary, scientifically or ethically, to subject rabbits to such cruel experiments.”

Source:

1.       The lab-grown penis: approaching a medical milestone. (2014). The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/oct/04/penis-transplants-anthony-atala-interview

2.       Bioengineering corporal tissue for structural and functional restoration of the penis. (2010). PNAS, 107(8): 3346-3350. Original article can be found here: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/8/3346.full

3.       Scientists create human penis in lab, could change trans men’s lives forever. (2014). Gay Star News: http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/scientists-create-human-penis-lab-could-change-trans-mens-lives-forever071014

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