Will “Building” Organs Make Transplants a Thing of the Past?

March 06, 2009 02:29 PM
by Cara McDonough
Two chemists announced this week that they have created “microtissues” that have the capacity to perform complex human functions, such as secreting hormones.

Creating the Building Blocks

While the microtissues are not the equivalent of an actual organ that can function in the human body, the University of California scientists say that next step may not be far off.

Building tissue with the ability to perform the activity of an organ, such as a heart, liver or kidney, could be the next step, reports MSNBC.

The University of California, Berkeley has released a statement saying that the synthetic
tissues created could one day be “scaled up” to make artificial organs that “could help scientists understand the interactions among cells in the body and might some day substitute for human organs.”
Carolyn Bertozzi, one of the coauthors of the study, said of the accomplishment, “This is like another level of hierarchical complexity for synthetic biology.”

Zev J. Gartner, a former UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow, worked with Bertozzi to fuse three types of cultured cells into “onion-like layers” using two established technologies. They reported on their work in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One of the techniques they used in the process is called DNA hybridization, which works by sticking cells together using the natural binding between complementary DNA strands.

The result, said Bertozzi, is “a little miniaturized, stripped-down system that operates on the same principle and looks like a miniaturized lymph node.” She expects that one day they will be able to build clusters like these that, combined with other synthetic cell clusters, will be able to be transplanted into humans.

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Related Topics: Organ donation, alternative treatments

One of the reasons Bertozzi and Gartner’s accomplishment is such an important one is that finding donors for those who need organ transplants can be a tricky and time-consuming affair.

Organs can be so hard to come by that organ trafficking is reportedly on the rise. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has spent more than a decade studying organ trafficking in several countries, including South Africa, Brazil and the United States. She says trafficking, a clandestine practice once largely considered a myth, is becoming a growing global concern.

In a January story in Newsweek, Scheper-Hughes said that the practice is generally orchestrated by a criminal network that connects organ buyers, sellers and “broker friendly” hospitals where surgeons either look beyond the organ selling or simply agree to participate in the process. The World Health Organization has estimated that one-fifth of the 70,000 kidneys transplanted globally each year are from the black market.

The new microtissue provides hope, however, that organs will not be so hard to come by in the future.

The medical world may someday be used to what now seem unbelievable procedures, such as “building” organs from scratch in a laboratory—or, as in another recent case, using animal cells to treat human diseases.

An experiment conducted in October utilized pig cells to treat people with diabetes. In the trial, people with Type 1 diabetes were injected with insulin-producing pig cells to help regulate their blood sugar levels. Officials initially objected to the experiment, citing concerns about transmitting viruses from pigs to people.

The research was eventually given a green light, however, and in May 2008, Dr. Stephen Badylak, an expert in regenerative medicine, said he had developed a powder capable of causing cells to regenerate. Hobby shop worker Lee Spievak, 69, said that his severed fingertip grew back in four weeks after applying the powder.

Though the powder only seemed to repair broken skin—and could not fix nerve damage, for instance—Badylak said at the time that the powder causes cells to regenerate and that it brings doctors a step closer to creating and replacing complex organs or even entire limbs, such as arms and legs.

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