Made to order organs, mere fantasy or indisputable reality?

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.

Organ
Some of the organs that can be produced from stem cells-
Image credits – dreamstime.com

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.

References

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/

Email: abdullahiqbal90@googlemail.com

Email me if you have any queries

 

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CineScience III: Jason Becker and ALS; from basic research to general public

Jason Becker

 

 

 

 

 

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a devastating disease considered the most common adult onset motor neuronal disorder. Sadly, this disease affects many patients around the world (1 to 3 patients per 100,000 people). These patients develop muscle weakness due to the progressive death of motor neurons (the cells responsible to connect muscles and central nervous system). In addition to the escalating failure of the neuromuscular system, the disease also may alter cognitive function and personality features. All these symptoms finally lead into the paralysis of several systems in the human body and, eventually, to death.

It is very hard to see how ALS can affect people from young age, typically from 30 or even younger ones. That was exactly the case of Jason Becker, an extraordinary guitarist diagnosed with ALS at the age of 19. He is the main character -or rather the hero- of Jason Becker: not dead yet), the documentary we watched in the III CineScience event held in October 2017 in Sheffield (South Yorkshire) . I use here the word “hero” because he had the proper behaviour of one. To the hard diagnosis, add the lack of information about the disease (in the 90’s). However, despite all the adversities, he found the way to transform his own life as an ALS-patient in a battle to raise awareness about the disease; an absolute triumph. [Read more on the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK website]

By Dr Margarita Segovia Roldán, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield. SRUK Yorkshire Constituency.

 

Can we protect ourselves from Alzheimer’s Disease, before it’s too late?

By Ruby Kell

As our population ages, it is thought that one in three people will have developed Alzheimer’s disease by the age of 85. This means we will all experience, either for ourselves or through friends and family, the devastating loss of memory, change in personality and inability to communicate brought on by this form of dementia.

Brain

But despite its growing prevalence, it seems there is little we can do about Alzheimer’ disease. There are currently just four FDA-approved drugs, the most recent of which was developed over a decade ago in 2002. All of these aim to increase levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is known to be involved in memory and thought processing. However these at best will only slow symptoms for 6-12 months.

This is because they combat an effect (brain cell death and overall brain shrinkage) rather than the cause of Alzheimer’s disease: abnormal clumps, or plaques, of a protein called amyloid beta, and ‘tangles’ of a protein called tau in neurons. These abnormal protein deposits reduce the ability of neurons to send signals within the brain, and eventually lead to their death. Scores of candidate drugs aiming to interfere with the formation of plaques and tangles have been put to the test in clinical trials, yet none have shown significant benefit to patients. Among these, some have even worsened the course of the disease, or triggered severe side effects.

So what keeps going wrong for Alzheimer’s research? In the view of some experts, the pitfalls for various failed candidate drugs can be explained as ‘too little, too late’. In other words, by the time plaques and tangles have emerged in the brain, and Alzheimer’s symptoms have been noticed, it may already be too late to act.

This seems like a bleak reality. But as our understanding of the disease increases with research, we are discovering more and more ways to take matters into our own hands. Of course, some factors are out of our control, like the increased risk that comes with age and the personal deck of cards dealt to you by your genetics and family history. But in recent years, more and more connections between lifestyle and reducing the chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease have come to light, providing a glimmer of hope in the dark confusion.

For example, one of the most promising lifestyle changes associated with Alzheimer’s protection could be as simple as a cup or two of green tea a day. In 2010, a long term study of almost 1000 participants over the age of 55 found that regular tea drinkers (i.e. consuming several cups a day of green, black or oolong tea) had a lower risk of developing a cognitive disorder, had improved memory, language abilities and attention than non-tea drinkers. This effect may be explained by a second study, which found that when a concentrated green tea was applied to rat neurons, it protected them from dying in the presence of the Alzheimer’s-causing amyloid beta protein.

It is thought that one component of green tea in particular, called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), may be responsible for this ‘anti-Alzheimer’s’ effect. Research has found that EGCG can coat amyloid beta proteins reducing the protein’s stickiness and preventing it from forming the amyloid beta clumps found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Excitingly, EGCG may even be able to bind amyloid beta that has already begun the plaque-forming process, and reverse it back to a non-toxic state.

Something else we have surely all heard before is the benefit of a healthy, Mediterranean diet on reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease But perhaps less well known is the link this diet has with protecting our brains from cognitive decline later in life. For example, one   found that elderly people with diets high in green leafy veg, fish and nuts, and low in red meat, had a 50% lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s than those with less healthy food habits. Luckily for those of us that struggle with maintaining ideal food habits, even participants who stuck to the diet less closely were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s during the course of the study.

Finally, if you are among the 39% of us in the UK able to speak more than one language, you may have a brain that will age slower than those that don’t. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh re-tested participants in their 70s on an intelligence test they took at the age of eleven, and found that those who had learnt a second language did significantly better than predicted from their baseline intelligence. In general, bilingual participants also had better memory, reasoning and processing speed, all of which normally decline with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

So maybe it is time to try swapping your morning milky English breakfast for a cup of green tea, adding some more leafy greens to your diet and finally picking up that second language you have always wanted to; at least while we let the researchers find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

 

About the Author

Ruby is a Molecular Biology Masters student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the effect of antibiotics and how we may be able to overcome the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance. Ruby has a particular interest in science communication and outreach, and has been volunteering with the BSA since November. You can follow her on Twitter @Ruby_Kell

Arts and Science: “We are Time slaves”

There is no doubt this thought from Don Rodrigo, the character played by the actor Fernando Fernan Gomezint the Spanish movie El abuelo (The grandfather), manages to reflect the enormous concern that the human being has about the passage of Time, and the scary moment of facing the inevitable old age period.

Arts have work, in many occasions, as a perfect tool to bring Science closer, not only to the general public but also to the scientific community. Regarding this fact, we currently live in a world where Social Media, such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs, have become the perfect “bridge” to improve the link between Science and General Public. [Read more on the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom website]

By Dr. Karla Robles López, PhD Student and Medical Doctor (Geneticist) and Dr Margarita Segovia Roldán, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield. SRUK Yorkshire Constituency.

*Picture of Don Pío and Don Rodrigo in the film El Abuelo

Artificial intelligence: hype or revolution?

You have probably heard about Artificial Intelligence (AI). It seems to be everywhere nowadays. Most technological companies seem to use the term frequently in their marketing, giving a sheen of science fiction, as if it was completely different from everything that came before. So what do these companies really mean when they say they use AI? Should we really be concerned that the Matrix or Skynet are just around the corner?

In science, AI is a well-defined field of computer science that has been in use for a very long time. The name is, perhaps, unfortunate, as it implies the creation of intelligent machines. Although that might still come about someday, what most companies mean when they talk about using AI is more prosaic. [Read more on the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom website]

By Dr. Antonio de la Vega de Leon. Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sheffield. SRUK Yorkshire Constituency.

Brain image link