Growing Organs in the Lab

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Why transplant an organ when you can grow yourself a new one?

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A homegrown bladder (Photo courtesy of BBC)

This research isn’t something that might happen in the distant future.  It’s being used today to grow fresh organs, open up new ways to study disease and the immune system, and reduce the need for organ transplants. Organ-farming laboratories are popping up across the planet, and showing impressive results. Here we look at the state of the union of a rapidly advancing field called tissue engineering: what’s been accomplished so far, and what’s right around the corner.

Patients who undergo organ transplants require loads of toxic drugs to suppress their immune systems; otherwise their body might reject the organ. But tissue engineering could make organ transplants a thing of the past. By using a patient’s cells to grow new types of tissue in the lab, researchers are finding new ways to custom-engineer you new body parts by using your own cells.

At the cutting edge of organ engineering is Tengion, a clinical-stage biotech company based outside of Philadelphia. Their most successful research to date led to the creation of the Neo-Bladder. Tengion takes some of your cells and grows them in culture for five to seven weeks around a biodegradable scaffold. When the organ is ready, it can be transplanted without the need to suppress the patient’s immune system (because the organ was grown from the patient’s own cells, it carries no risk of rejection). Once the organ is in, the scaffold degrades and the bladder adapts to its new (old) home.

The Tengion Neo-Bladder is in Phase II testing, meaning that they have already implanted the organ into individuals and studied how the body adapts to it.  After 5 years, the company was able to show that the homegrown organs are safe and effective, capable of treating the bladder effects of spina bifida (a neural tube defect that effects bladder function, among other things). After another round of Phase II trials, Tengion will move on to Phase III testing; after that, the Neo-Bladder should be approved and be made commercially available.

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Atala wants to grow you an organ

Tengion’s Neo-bladder is nearing the completion of its clinical trials, but they weren’t the first to grow one. If anyone on Earth deserves the job title “Organ Farmer,” it’s Dr. Anthony Atala. He and his research team at Wake Forest University Medical Center pioneered the world’s first lab-grown bladder, and they remain at the forefront of the organ-growing field (Atala is also the chairman of Tengion’s scientific advisory board). Wake Forest is the world’s largest regenerative medicine research center, and their current research is growing 22 different types of tissue: heart valves, muscle cells, arteries, and even fingers.

So how many different types of human organs have been grown and transplanted? The lab-grown bladders are among the only transplants of an entire organ, but a wide variety of partial organ transplants have taken place. Skin cells are regularly grown in culture and grafted onto patients’ bodies. A graft was grown from a patient’s trachea cells and transplanted to replace part of her airway that had degraded due to disease. Cartilage has been grown and transplanted into a patient’s knee.

A number of technologies are under development but have yet to be transplanted into human bodies. Recently, Dr. Nicholas Kotov and his lab at the University of Michigan have engineered artificial bone marrow, a task that was previously doomed to failure. Kotov and his colleagues realized that in the body, stem cell differentiation relies on chemical signals in three dimensions (whereas in a petri dish, it takes place in two dimensions). This insight led to a new methodology that more closely replicated the natural environment of stem cell differentiation in bone marrow tissue. The resultant homegrown marrow grew and divided normally, even releasing antibodies in fight off an introduced influenza strain. It can be used to study the role of bone marrow in fighting disease within the body, as well as creating a “bioreactor”: harnessing the artificial marrow within a device to grow cells and tissues.

Tengion is pretty busy these days as well. Their new website lists a variety of new applications on the horizon, including a Neo-Kidney augment, artery replacements (including in the heart), and variations on their bladder technique to replace cancerous organs. Their company pipeline gives a general idea of the relative stages of each project.

A number of initiatives are under way to create an artificial pancreas, which would revolutionize the way we treat diabetes. By providing diabetics with a healthy pancreas, doctors could restore their natural control of blood glucose by giving them an endogenous source of insulin. Anyone with experience of diabetes knows the difficulty of manually monitoring and controlling your sugar levels, not to mention regularly injecting insulin. A lab-grown pancreas replacement would be an incredible benefit to the 23.6 million individuals in America alone who suffer from diabetes.

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The Minnesota rat heart

As we previously reported, researchers at the University of Minnesota grew an entire rat heart in a laboratory last year. Their next goal is to grow a pig heart, a significant milestone towards growing a human heart due to their similar structure. Researchers hope to combine the scaffold of a pig heart with human cardiac tissue to grow a hybrid heart suitable for transplant.

Another exciting frontier is the field of printable tissue and organs, which is just what it sounds like. Inkjet cartidges are cleaned out and loaded with a mixture of live human cells and “smart gel.” Then, layer by layer, the cells are printed atop one another until a 3D organ is constructed. Just as a normal printer can deposit different colored ink, organ printing allows scientists to specify where to place different cell types. Organ printing has already created beating cardiac cells, and could soon produce organs that are viable for transplant. But unlike other 3D printers, I wouldn’t want this one in my living room.

The hottest areas in tissue growth are the types hardest to make: nerve, liver, kidney, heart and pancreas cells.  But these are precisely where Alata and Tengion are heading, pushing the industry into fresh territory. Coupled with new regenerative treatments like Cook biotech’s foams and stem-cell organ patching, tissue engineering will be keeping our organs young and healthy in the years to come.

Merely a decade ago, tissue engineering was still a new field that struggled to find funding and support. Today, thousands of scientists worldwide are coordinating efforts to reach new breakthroughs, and the demonstrated potential of these methods has helped bring in investors. That should keep the organ growing field moving forward in the future months and years, and we’ll be covering new advances as they emerge.

Check out this Wired Science video that tours around Atala’s lab:


WIRED SCIENCE | Body Builders | PBS
by pbs_usa

Discussion — 35 Responses

  • josh ruppert June 10, 2009 on 1:12 am

    Anthony Atala is a saint.. He is actively working towards healing people. He has nothing but admiration from myself..

    • Pooploser josh ruppert November 27, 2012 on 12:50 pm

      You hoebag. He probably eats unborn fetuses

  • josh ruppert June 9, 2009 on 9:12 pm

    Anthony Atala is a saint.. He is actively working towards healing people. He has nothing but admiration from myself..

  • rt rtyrty June 11, 2009 on 12:38 pm

    Jai – Rastafari

  • rt rtyrty June 11, 2009 on 8:38 am

    Jai – Rastafari

  • Jim Slear June 12, 2009 on 4:56 pm

    Absolutly facinating info, could this ever help to reverse stroke problems? I had one and still have not regained the use of my left arm and hand, or my left leg

  • Jim Slear June 12, 2009 on 12:56 pm

    Absolutly facinating info, could this ever help to reverse stroke problems? I had one and still have not regained the use of my left arm and hand, or my left leg

  • chad shodeen November 3, 2009 on 4:08 pm

    this sucked

  • chad shodeen November 3, 2009 on 12:08 pm

    this sucked

  • sweater January 25, 2010 on 4:03 pm

    will it be possible to make diffrent life organism with this science because you make body parts so why cant you make a new organism

  • Big_PApa February 9, 2010 on 5:00 pm

    its not we will be able to eventually, technology.. we can do organs now organisms latter

  • Terri April 27, 2010 on 9:19 pm

    I think that growing organs is an excellent idea. I would like to know more about it because I have had so many problems with my bladder, treid every medication there is, and 3 surgeries and more to come. I would love to grow my own bladder!

    • Abigail Terri August 24, 2010 on 8:32 am

      Hi Terri,
      Could you please make contact as my daughter has an augmentation of the bladder coming up and would love some feed back if you have any or advice regarding infections in the kidneys. She has a reflux problem from spina bifida. We would like to avoid surgery if possible so any advice no matter how small is a help.
      Regards
      Abigail

  • Lawrence R. Holt May 2, 2010 on 3:39 pm

    I’m a recipient of a lung transplant and have been fighting chronic rejection for over two years. Is there any research being done toward growing new lungs? If there are any research programs I’d love to know about them and would consider violunteering for a study.

    • Ebbrooksie Lawrence R. Holt March 29, 2011 on 1:12 pm

      Ya there is research and in a video I saw they were breathing on their own in a lab. I don’t know when they are going to start giving people the lungs though…

  • Lawrence R. Holt May 2, 2010 on 11:39 am

    I’m a recipient of a lung transplant and have been fighting chronic rejection for over two years. Is there any research being done toward growing new lungs? If there are any research programs I’d love to know about them and would consider violunteering for a study.

  • michael August 5, 2010 on 9:04 am

    so if you are able to grow bladder’s and hearts and lungs have you not tried to grow the sexual organs like ovaries and testicles?????

  • michael August 5, 2010 on 5:04 am

    so if you are able to grow bladder’s and hearts and lungs have you not tried to grow the sexual organs like ovaries and testicles?????

  • tiffany crumblisss August 5, 2010 on 4:24 pm

    I have a friend with liver cancer she has hep c. She is not doing well and is in the red zone. She would like to find a doctor to give her a t cell grown liver transplant. Is this a possible? If so could you send us in the right direction

  • tiffany crumblisss August 5, 2010 on 12:24 pm

    I have a friend with liver cancer she has hep c. She is not doing well and is in the red zone. She would like to find a doctor to give her a t cell grown liver transplant. Is this a possible? If so could you send us in the right direction

  • Anastazia11 November 1, 2010 on 7:15 pm

    I think that is truely amazing, that you are attempting to do these remarkable experiments to help humanity. Keep up the great work!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ball joint tools November 12, 2010 on 7:34 am

    I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.

  • Www Desperateorange887 January 31, 2011 on 6:49 pm

    only god can heal ppl’s organs. This man is treading in the lord’s territory. These organs may not even work right! Bless and praise the lord and you will truly be healed. Instead of buying fake body parts from this heathen.
    God loves you
    God bless you

    • colin j dunn Www Desperateorange887 February 3, 2011 on 5:26 pm

      If God loves you then why not accept the gifts of modern science? Surely they are part of the Lord’s territory. Many people praise the Lord every day but are still waiting. Healing comes in different ways — why not through science?

      You say these organs may not even work. Why? On what basis? With such an attitude we would achieve nothing.

    • Jason Www Desperateorange887 February 23, 2011 on 9:16 pm

      If you go to Chabad’s website Chabad.org they talk about this not in some bad way, but as part of the beggining of the messianic era. http://www.chabad.org/multimedia/media_cdo/aid/865119/jewish/Future-Trends-Biotechnology.htm

    • aurelio Www Desperateorange887 October 13, 2011 on 2:04 pm

      seriously go to hell. he wants to save lives. if it weren’t for people like “this heathen” my father wouldn’t be alive. you are just to scared and unwilling to open that tiny brain of yours to the fact that this is our future. this will save more lives then your mythical deity EVER has.

  • Colin J Dunn February 3, 2011 on 5:18 pm

    Scaffolding is a fundamental princicple for organ growth pioneered by Hans Selye over 50 years ago. In fact, Prof Selye managed to grow bone, complete with bone marrow, using short fat glass implants; other shapes (Y shaped, long narrow tubes) produced other tissues (see: In Vivo, A Case for Supramolecular Biology, Liveright Publ, 1964. H Selye). Amazing how long it took to reinvent and extend this discovery. Prof Selye would have been proud of today’s pioneers.

  • Larry F March 8, 2011 on 12:38 am

    There are so many of us that need organs. Because of a medication my liver has been ruined. With the lack of organs and rejection I absolutely support Dr Atala for what he and others are doing. I pray everyday that he comes closer to developing a Liver. Hearts as well.
    Praise God and Bless Dr Atala.

  • Guest March 29, 2011 on 1:07 pm

    Organ FARMING?!?!?!?!?!?! It sounds like you have them all in rows and go around watering them! lol I Don’t really get it…

  • Jon Shay August 24, 2013 on 5:30 am

    Has anyone grown a functional, human stomach? I had a gastric sleeve a while ago and I currently experience a lot of discomfort, heartburn, and host of other gastric problems. I seriously regret doing it, and I would like to know if it’s possible for me to get a new, personal stomach in the near future?

    I know Dr. Anthony Atala has already implanted bladders into patients, so I imagine that a stomach isn’t much harder than a bladder?

  • TomasTorovk August 31, 2013 on 3:23 am

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  • Bauager Baoindito October 4, 2013 on 2:15 am

    I’m scared what (designer organs could me make) wings tails. We could even take on usefull parts from the animal kingdom even worse the insect world creating superhumans. And organic weaponds and shields

    Something’s are ment to be left alone
    We already are over populated
    We are a stupid species because we have to ask questions
    We are our problem and that’s something that can’t be fixed

  • wendy101 October 20, 2013 on 9:18 pm

    if there was a person who need a kindney transplant and they went on a waiting list, if they had this technology done would it be quicker or will it be a waste of time and they may aswell wait from someone to give them a kindney?????????

  • Terri popurls.com // popular today April 27, 2010 on 5:19 pm

    I think that growing organs is an excellent idea. I would like to know more about it because I have had so many problems with my bladder, treid every medication there is, and 3 surgeries and more to come. I would love to grow my own bladder!

  • Abigail Terri August 24, 2010 on 4:32 am

    Hi Terri,
    Could you please make contact as my daughter has an augmentation of the bladder coming up and would love some feed back if you have any or advice regarding infections in the kidneys. She has a reflux problem from spina bifida. We would like to avoid surgery if possible so any advice no matter how small is a help.
    Regards
    Abigail