Recent breakthroughs in medical technology prove that really are living in extraordinary times. A kidney grown in a lab has been successfully transplanted into the body of a rat, a major step towards personalised transplant organs for people.
Organs to order
a future possibility
There is currently no cure for kidney failure, the answer is long-term dialysis or transplant. The problem is, there just aren’t enough organs to go around, and roughly 50% of those waiting for organs actually get one. Transplant offers all kinds of risks and usually affects the patients’ quality of life.
The medical practice of ‘growing’ organs, created from the patients’ own cells has been seen as a holy grail in medical tech research, but now a team of scientists led by Harald Ott of Massachusetts General hospital have come a step closer to making that dream a reality. Using techniques previously employed to successfully ‘grow’ organs such as hearts, lungs and livers.
The team first removed the kidney of a rat and removed its functioning cells, leaving a ‘white cellular matrix’, that is, like a collagen frame that gave the organ its structure. They then ‘seeded’ kidney and blood vessel cells from newborn rats and cultured the organ in the lab for 12 days until the cells had completely grown over the existing frame. They then transplanted the organ into a live rat where it successfully filtered the animal’s blood.
According to Ott, the technique will take considerable refinement and that people shouldn’t get too excited just yet, human trials are still a long, long way off, but the experiment proves that the idea is possible. ‘Growing’ organs is one thing, printing them is another. A team at Cornell University have pioneered a technique using 3D printers to print whole human ears that can be used to treat children born with congenital defects or people who have lost ears in accidents.
The process involves a 3D printed external structure, which is then injected with collagen derived from the cartilage of a cow, the result is an ear flap the looks and function almost exactly like a human ear. The next step is to look at ways to fill the mould out with material derived from human cells, minimising the risk of rejection.
Lawrence Bonassar, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Cornell says: “It takes half a day to design the mould, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later. We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted”. It conjures images of a future where your bespoke organs are ordered in the mourning and ready for transplant in the afternoon, instead of running down to the beauty clinic on your lunch break for Botox or collagen injections, just as cosmetic ‘nips and tucks’ are within reach of almost anyone, internal organ replacement therapy can become an affordable and easy solution to a whole range of problems.
A team at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University have developed a 3D printing technique that produces clusters of human embryonic stem cells and are working towards the creation of artificially generated human livers for drugs testing. Since 2006 scientists at the Wake Forrest Institute for Regeneration have been routinely creating body components such as bladders, urine tubes and spinal cords that have been implanted into humans, with long-term success having been reported in clinical trials.
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This is just about the coolest use of a CT scanner and a 3D printer that we can think of. Researchers have used them together to scan and then to print replica fossils that would otherwise not be removable from the rock in which they lie.
This Christmas, we’re set to have our very own ‘Star of Bethlehem’, blazing a trail across the night sky as the comet ISON touches the surface of the sun on November 28th.