Organ transplants entered mainstream medicine in the late 1980s, with over 700,000 transplants occurring in the United States to date. Today, over 115,000 Americans await lifesaving organ transplants, with a new name added to that list every 10 minutes.
Just one deceased donor can save the life of up to 8 people and enhance the lives of up to 100. However, 20 people die every day in the United States from a lack of available organs.
But what if we could eliminate the need for donors by growing organs in the lab? It may sound like a plot from a far-fetched Sci-Fi movie, but the advent next generation sequencing technology has sparked huge scientific advances in the fields of bioinformatics and tissue engineering.
Scientists have already successfully regenerated organs in the lab. The final challenge is ensuring that artificially-created tissue is safe for human transplantation.
The Vacanti Mouse
It has been over 20 years since Harvard surgeons Charles and Joseph Vacanti made the controversial decision to grow an ear on the back of a mouse. They created the Vacanti Mouse, or Earmouse as it became known, as part of their research into creating human body parts.
The Vacanti Mouse drew mass media attention, calling into question the morality of genetic engineering and animal testing. Nevertheless, the experiment provided key insight into the viability of manmade body parts.
Joseph Vacanti was a pediatric surgeon. He and his brother conducted the experiment to address escalating donor organ shortages.
First, the Vacanti brothers and their team established that they could create cartilage in the lab. Then, they set about finding a solution to one of the hardest problems in pediatric reconstructive surgery: recreating the human ear.
The team created the ear by making an ear-shaped scaffold made of biodegradable materials. Once they had constructed the scaffold, they seeded it with cartilage cells and placed it in an incubator. Researchers then implanted the living structure into the mouse.
Scientists Create the First Lab-Grown Esophagus in October 2018
The Crick Institute and Great Ormond Street conducted a pioneering new study to generate a human esophagus from stem cells. Again, the recipient was a mouse, but experts hope to progress to clinical trials of artificially-created food pipes for infants in the not-too-distant future.
Esophageal atresia is a rare hereditary disorder that causes an absence of esophageal tissue. This impairs the infant’s ability to feed and affects long-term health.
Treatments include surgical intervention, such as a gastric “pull-up,” in which the stomach is lifted towards the chest and connected directly to the throat. This procedure offers only limited improvement, with patients continuing to need feeding support. Even after surgery, people with the condition must eat slowly and carefully, as breathing and eating at the same time can be difficult.
The Potential of Regenerative Medicine in Treating Disorders of the Gut
The aim of Great Ormand Street’s pioneering Stem Cell Research Facility, run by some of the world’s leading specialists, is to find a cure for a range of complex childhood illnesses. Paolo De Coppi, Head of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at the Institute, hailed the achievement as a major step forward for regenerative medicine, bringing experts closer to providing rejection-free transplants.
He pointed out that Great Ormand Street Hospital sees large numbers of rare and complex defects of the gut. Though treatment has improved dramatically over the years, much work remains in terms of reducing the long-term impact of diseases like esophageal atresia.
Scientists still need to conduct a great deal of research before manmade windpipes are deemed safe for human trials. However, Paolo De Coppi was very excited by the preclinical findings.
Growing Human Hearts from Stem Cells
With around 4,000 American citizens on the waiting list and a projected shortfall of 1,500, demand for heart donors vastly outstrips supply. Growing human hearts in the lab would eliminate the need for donors as well as minimize the risk of the recipient’s body rejecting the donor organ.
A collaboration of scientists from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital are edging closer to growing a fully functional human heart in the lab, according to a study recently published in Circulation Research. The team worked with donor hearts deemed unfit for transplantation.
Researchers stripped away damaged cells from each heart, seeding it with stem cells. This induced new cells to grow in place of the damaged cells. They then infused the heart with a nutrient solution similar to that found in the human body.
After two weeks, the heart was found to have generated tissue similar to that found in an immature heart. When given a shock of electricity, the heart started beating.
The Future of Lab Grown Organs
We are still some way off from transplanting lab-created hearts into the bodies of people who need them. However, this is the closest researchers have ever come to achieving the monumental goal of growing a complete, working heart in the lab.
Experts still have a long way to go in terms of research. That said, this achievement brings us one step closer to solving the donor organ shortfall and saving tens of thousands of in the United States alone.