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Scientists move closer to engineering new organs from scratch

Scientists move closer to engineering new organs from scratch

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Building organs from scratch could be the only way to solve the current shortage of transplants.

There are 113,237 people in the United States waiting for an organ. About eighteen of them will die today because they won’t get one, according to the US Government’s organ donor website.

If science could build new organs like it can build cars and televisions, those 113,237 people would not have such an uncertain future. But building a functioning organ is no small feat.

Today a study in the journal Lancet lead by Paolo Macciarini from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden summarized what we know about a new method by which science might be able to pull off such a challenge: engineering organs. The idea is to build a scaffold of artificial material, and then insert the patient’s own stem cells into it.

Not only would this provide organs to those who need them, but because the organs would be built using the person’s own stem cells there would be no risk of the body rejecting the transplant.

This isn’t the first time the scaffolding technique has been tried. It’s been used successfully to reconstruct less complex body parts like the trachea and oesophagus, and skeletal muscle. In 2008, Macchiarini transplanted a trachea into a woman in Barcelona that was engineered from her own cells. A similar procedure was conducted in 2010 on a 10-year old boy.

Both of these procedures, however, used donor tracheas on which the stem cells were grafted. In the future, Macchiarini thinks science could build those scaffolds using animals rather than people.

And building a more complicated organ than the trachea, like a liver or heart for example, is much more difficult. There are also issues when it comes to the clinical trials of these artificial organs. Because they’re not entirely sure that the organ would work in the body, patients who accept these experimental parts will have to accept the risks too, and be willing to let scientists monitor them intensely while they attempt to heal.

But, Macchiarini believes that engineering these organs is the way to go to solve the organ donation crisis. “The pressure to advance this technique, driven by demand, the race for prestige, and the potential for huge profits, mandates an early commitment be made to establish the safety of various strategies... particularly when there are so many potential patients and doctors who are desperate for any remedy that offers hope,” he told the Independent.

Photo via Flickr, by spec-ta-cles.

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure