Making Transplant Organs in a Lab
By: Patrick Kiger
Organ transplants save lives, but due to a lack of donations and the difficulty of obtaining a suitable match, a lot of people still die while waiting for a transplant. Worldwide, the shortage has grown so dire that in Australia, the government actually has begun offering to pay potential kidney donors an upfront fee of around $3,800, just for promising to provide an organ if called upon.
That's why a lot of people are excited about the news coming out of Boston. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston say that they've successfully transplanted kidneys grown in a lab into actual rats, and that those kidneys successfully have filtered the recipients' blood and made urine, just like the rats' natural kidneys.
As the Nature article explains, organ-regeneration researcher Harald Ott a few years ago developed a process for growing artificial organs. Basically, it involves taking a kidney from dead rat and washing away away the kidney's cells with a detergent, so that only the underlying scaffold of connective tissue such as blood vessels remains. Then, the scaffold is seeded with two types of cells--human umbilical-vein cells to line the blood vessels, and kidney cells from newborn rats to produce the other tissues that actually make up the kidney. (A rough analogy: Imagine stripping an old junker of a car down to the chassis, and then attaching a new parts to it that somehow spawned other parts and then grew into a replacement car. That's how amazing this is.) Ott has used the same process to grow hearts and lungs in the lab, but this marks the first time that researchers actually have transplanted such a duplicate organ and shown that it actually works inside an animal body.
So far, the ,manufactured kidneys don't work anywhere near as well as the original equipment--they only produce about a third of the urine of a healthy natural rat kidney, according to the Nature article. But that's still considerably better than the amount of function that patients with failing kidneys have, and it would be enough to keep them alive without the necessity of undergoing dialysis treatments.
If the process can be scaled up to work in humans, we may see a day soon in which doctors will harvest scaffolds from cadavers or pigs, or even use the diseased kidney from a patient's own body, and then populate them with new cells.
Meanwhile, though, other researchers are pushing ahead with an even more radical approach to creating donor organs--bioprinting, in which a 3-D printer spews out layers of cells on top of one another to build a complete new organ from scratch. Organovo, the company that created the first biological printer back in 2009, recently joined forces with software company AutoDesk to develop software that could be used to design human tissue on a computer and then print it. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, gave a TED talk in 2011 that explains how it would work.
Once we can make artifical organs and get them to work, who knows where it may lead. Maybe it's time to revisit an idea that I wrote about in 2011--the possiblity of someday bioprinting an entire human being.