“If you open your minds and let your imaginings run wild, you can see.” J. Craig Venter, the genomic scientist and founder of the J. Craig Venter Institute, was speaking yesterday about the potential for techniques involved in the field of synthetic life to improve medicine, but his words could have been applied to the all the talks during the opening session of TED MED (“TED” is for technology, entertainment, design). The conference is running from October 27 through 30 at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. Speakers also described advances in using stem cells for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

Venter reviewed recent advances in “software building its own hardware.” That is, by inserting DNA from one organism into another, scientists have been able to use existing cellular machinery to read that DNA—transforming one species to another. He mentioned Phase II clinical trials of a vaccine for meningitis developed with the technique.

Moving DNA into stem cells through therapeutic cloning could treat diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, said Daniel Kraft of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “You could bank them for the future, when you might need them,” he said.

Other researchers are seeding cells onto scaffolds with the hopes of eventually building replacement tissue and organs. “Every 30 seconds, a person dies of a disease that could have been solved with tissue replacement,” said Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and chair of urology at Wake Forest University. During the past decade, the number of patients waiting for organs has doubled while donations have remained flat, added Atala. Although stem cells are needed for such tissues as heart, liver and pancreas, he said, tissue-specific cells from the patient could be used to grow other new organs in the future.