This important breakthrough, though easy to mock, is actually a quite serious endeavor.
Dr. Anthony Atala, of Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital, is one of a team of researchers whose work harvesting rabbit penises in laboratory incubators has provided hope for a small but growing population of parents: those whose children are born with ambiguous genitalia.
To be born with ambiguous genitalia is “a life-changing event,” according to Atala. “For us it’s very serious stuff,” he says. “We’re the ones who have to face the parents when the baby is born. It’s very devastating. You can’t even tell the family in the first 48 hours whether the baby is a boy or a girl.”
Babies born with an X and a Y chromosome are often raised female despite the Y. The problem is that, as tissue engineering technology stands now, it is impossible to reconstruct male genitals out of meager amounts of penile tissue. But it is possible to construct normal female genitals out of what ambiguously gendered males have at birth.
Atala’s work, which was published in the October 2002 Journal of Urology and which he has spent the last seven years perfecting, could change the entire landscape of this field. He and his team were able to transform a small sample of rabbit penile tissue into a larger, realistic penis part. That part was then attached to the rabbits’ deficient penile tissue, and eventually the entire organ functioned with almost perfect normalcy. “They had the same activity, they had the same frequency, they had the same ability to penetrate, copulate and ejaculate,” Atala says.
If the Harvard team can successfully extend their research from rabbits to humans—and Atala believes that this is possible—the potentially disastrous psychological effects of being forced into a gender that is not one’s own could be avoided. For now, though, Atala says he is taking the research one step at a time. “It’s a very complex issue,” he says. “That’s why we are targeting this kind of therapy, just so that we can have other options.”