Built in the lab

What if you could grow a custom-made organ in a lab? Patients can now benefit from technology that helps grow organs

Written by Associated Press | Published: June 23, 2013 4:02:21 am


By the time 10-year old Sarah Murnaghan finally got a lung transplant last week,she’d been waiting for months,and her parents had sued to give her a better chance at surgery. Her cystic fibrosis was threatening her life,and her case spurred a debate in the US on how to allocate scarce donor organs for transplant.

But what if there were another way? What if you could grow a custom-made organ in a lab?

It sounds incredible. But just a three-hour drive from the Philadelphia hospital where Sarah got her transplant,another girl is benefiting from just that sort of technology. Two years ago,Angela Irizarry needed a crucial blood vessel. Researchers built her one in a laboratory,using cells from her own bone marrow. Today the five-year-old sings,dances and dreams of becoming a firefighter—and a doctor.

Growing lungs and other organs for transplant is still in the future,but scientists are working towards that goal. In North Carolina,a 3-D printer builds prototype kidneys. In several labs,scientists study how to build on the internal scaffolding of hearts,lungs,livers and kidneys of people and pigs to make custom-made implants.

Here’s the dream scenario: A patient donates cells,either from a biopsy or maybe just a blood draw. A lab uses them to seed onto a scaffold that’s shaped like the organ he needs. Then,says Dr Harald Ott of Massachusetts General Hospital,“we can regenerate an organ that will not be rejected (and can be) grown on demand and transplanted surgically,similar to a donor organ”.

As Irizarry’s case shows,simpler body parts are already being used as researchers explore the possibilities.

Angela was born in 2007 with a heart that had only one functional pumping chamber,a potentially lethal condition. Yale University surgeons told Angela’s parents they could try to create a conduit with bone marrow cells. Angela would be the first participant in a US study.

So,over 12 hours one day,doctors took bone marrow from Angela and extracted certain cells,seeded them onto a biodegradable tube,incubated them for two hours and then implanted the graft into Angela to grow into a blood vessel.

It’s been almost two years and Angela is doing well,her mother says. Before the surgery,she couldn’t run or play without getting tired,she said. Now,“she is able to have a normal play day.”

How long until doctors start testing solid organs in people? Ott hopes to see human studies on some lab-grown organs in five to 10 years. Dr John LaMattina of the University of Maryland School of Medicine also figures five to 10 years.

“I’m an optimist,” he adds. “You have to be an optimist in this job.”

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