By Abdullah Iqbal
Will we one day be able to end all organ donor lists?
It sounds like a dream that we can produce organs but it may eventually be possible due to research in regenerative medicine and 3D printing. We may one day be able to produce organs for our individual needs.
The organ supply is currently a major problem with 20 people dying every day in America waiting for an organ. But these organs could, in fact, be produced from our own skin. Scientists do this by first adding certain substances called transcription factors to a sample of our skin cells which reprograms them into stem cells. Because these organs are produced from our own cells our body’s immune system which protects us from foreign invaders will not destroy the transplanted organ.
You might be thinking, why all this hassle just to produce some stem cells? However, stem cells are very special because they have two abilities which make them immensely important. One being self- renewal; the ability to divide and produce more stem cells, and proliferation; the ability to be able to divide into other cell types.
With these stem cells, scientists are trying to produce organs for transplantation. However the complexity of an organ means that there has not been successful transplantation. For example, the heart has seven different cell types and to ensure it functions it must be developed in an environment which mimics that of the human body. But at present, we do not fully understand what controls an organs’ formation.
Another major problem is that stem cells produced from our own cells (which are called induced pluripotent stem cells [iPSC]) have a higher chance of becoming cancerous. The exact reason for this is still not fully understood and this problem must be eliminated before we can transplant organs generated from stem cells into a patient.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. There is a bright side as we are getting closer to our goal. In 2015 researchers at the University of California, Berkeley generated ‘mini-hearts’ which even beat like a normal heart and have micro-chambers for blood storage. In the same year, scientists at the Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh produced the first mini-livers using a 3D printer. These advancements will allow scientists to gain a better understanding of the necessary process that occurs to produce organs and therefore bring us one step closer to our goal of making organs.
The relatively new process of 3D printing will help us get there and hopefully allow us to produce organs on a whim. Imagine having your own made to order organ. You would not have to worry about the donor list. They would just take a small sample of your cells and generate the organ you require – after many complex procedures, of course. These organs are produced using 3D printers and bio-ink.
Bio-ink is a material which mimics the extracellular environment (outside environment) of the organ in question and instead of going on paper the bio-ink is placed layer by layer onto a microgel to ensure the organ keeps its shape. After the organ is produced it must be incubated to allow the cells to mature and so produce a functioning organ.
We are slowly going to achieve our goal of producing organs, but the question is what social and economic ramifications it will cause. Will only the rich be able to use them? Should people who damage their own organs such as smokers and excessive drinkers be allowed to have an organ transplant, when the money could be used to save other people? Will it change social norms, allowing people to become more ignorable to the damage they cause to their organs because they can just be replaced?
I will leave you to ponder these questions and to come to your own decisions.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (2017) Organ Donor Statistics [online]. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. [Viewed 2nd February 2018]. Available from: https://www.organdonor.gov/statistics-stories/statistics.html
National Institutes of Health (2018) Stem Cell Basics 1 [online]. National Institutes of Health. [Viewed 4th February]. Available from: https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm
Daily Mail (2015) The tiny beating heart grown from STEM CELLS – and scientists say other organs could be on the way [online]. Daily Mail [Viewed 1ST February 2018]. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3162819/The-tiny-beating-heart-grown-STEM-CELLS-scientists-say-organs-way.html
PubMed.gov (2015) Bioprinting of human pluripotent stem cells and their directed differentiation into hepatocyte-like cells for the generation of mini-livers in 3D [online] PubMed.gov [Viewed 3rd February]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26486521
How stuff works (2018) How Bioprinting Works [online]. How stuff works [Viewed 2nd February]. Available From: https://health.howstuffworks.com/medicine/modern-technology/3-d-bioprinting.htm
About the Author
I am a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield studying a Biomedical Science Degree. I am deeply interested in the use of stem cells because this is a field of science which hopefully one day I will conduct research in. Therefore, writing a blog post will allow me to further my own understanding of scientific topics and help inform other people about the amazing research currently occurring worldwide to alleviate suffering. Furthermore by informing people of research it will give them hope that there will eventually be a cure for whatever they are suffering from.
LinkedIn: – https://www.linkedin.com/in/abdullah-iqbal/
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