Scientists Are Solving Our Donor Crisis With Lab-Grown Organs

heart in hands

When a part of our car starts to act up, we call up a mechanic and ask them to replace that part. Sadly, we can’t do that with our body parts — not yet at least.

As organs get sickened, from disease or an accident, and stop working at their peak, major things can go wrong inside the body.

When this happens, many times the only solution is an organ transplant from a living donor.

Sadly, our current system of organ transplantation (from live, brain dead donors) isn’t working — it leaves many people to die while they wait for organs.

So, researchers have been looking for other options. Specifically, they’ve been trying to build organs in the lab using a patient’s own cells. Doctors think they can take a patient’s cells, grow them in the lab, then place them onto either a “ghost organ” which has been washed clean of the donor’s cells or onto a man-made scaffold shaped into the organ.

These man-made scaffolds are materials that won’t create an immune system reaction from the body, but will also be a good base for the cells to attach to and live on.

Researchers are hopeful they can get a patient’s own cells to perform the functions of various organs, but some are more difficult and complex than others. While some of these organs have been successfully grown in a lab, others have not been quite as successful. Scroll through this list to see which ones are working, and which still have a ways to go.

Organ: Heart

Current Wait For A Donor:

3,222 people

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

In January of 2008, the heart was one of the first organs researchers successfully created in the lab. The heart was made of rat cells, and when researchers applied an electrical current (similar to that provided by nerve cells in the body) the heart could beat. These hearts, however, weren't strong enough to sustain an animal.

That same team, led by Doris Taylor of the University of Minnesota, announced in 2011 that they were growing human hearts from donor heart scaffolds in the lab. They are hoping to get them beating.

Recently, another group of researchers have been able to make heart cells from human embryonic stem cells that beat in synchrony. These cells were made into grafts that could repair guinea pig hearts.


Taylor told the Sunday Times: 'We are a long way off creating a heart for transplant, but we think we've opened a door to building any organ for human transplant.'

Organ: Lungs

Organ: Skin

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

We are already growing skin in the lab and using it to cover up burns, but the problem is it is quite expensive. One group of scientists at Wake Forest are printing multiple layers of skin cells directly onto burned skin to help heal burns faster.

Amazingly, in 2011 word got around that a German factory is in the works to churn out their own lab-made skin. The skin is being tested in animals, and it could be a while before it can be used in humans, though the company is trying. In 2011 it could produce 5,000 penny-sized disks of tissue every month, each costing $72.


Possible, but not monetarily feasible.

Organ: Liver

Current Wait For A Donor:

15,991 people.

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

In June 2012, a group in Japan announced they had successfully implanted lab-grown human liver cells into mice. The mice then metabolized drugs the way humans would.

The researchers used human adult stem cells in which they'd 'turned back the clock' to get them to make liver cells instead, by applying certain chemicals that change the cells. In a special sequence they then added stem cells from the umbilical cord, then those from bone marrow.

These cell clumps were incubated and after a few days formed three-dimensional 'liver buds' which had some liver functioning when they were grafted onto a mouse.

In another study, published in Nature Medicine in June 2010, researchers successfully transferred a lab-made human liver graft onto the liver of a rat. The researchers used biological scaffolding from a liver to make the graft, which performed multiple liver functions.


Still a while out.

Organ: Intestines

Current Wait For A Donor:

250 people.

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

The intestines are an incredibly complex and important organ. They have multiple layers and serve as an interface between our bodies and the outside world. If the intestines stopped working properly, we would die.

Recently, researchers made human stem cells into tissue that resembles the inside of the intestines. They doused the cells in special chemicals and put them on a three dimensional scaffold that changes how they act. Scientists will be able to use these intestine-like cells to study how the organ develops, and what goes wrong in diseases like Chron's disease.

Eventually, this same strategy could be used to create intestine layers in the lab, though they still have to figure out how to get nerve cells and muscle in there too.


Gonna be a while.

Organ: Bladder

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

Currently, doctors can grow bladders in a lab by taking a small amount of bladder tissue from a patient, taking those cells and growing them up to make large numbers, then applying those cells to a scaffold in the lab and then growing it in an incubator. A few weeks later that lab-grown bladder can be placed back into the patient.

Doctors have been performing this surgery for over a decade and one of the first patients to receive a lab-grown bladder was Luke Massella, who had kidney and bladder issues because of spina bifida.

'I went through about 16 surgeries,' Masella said in a TED talk. 'This surgery came along and basically made me who I am today and saved my life. When I was 10 I didn't realise how amazing it was. I was a little kid and I was like, 'yeah I'll have that, I'll have that surgery.' All I wanted to do was to get better and I didn't realise how amazing it really was until now that I'm older.'


Get yours, now!

Organ: Kidney

Current Wait For A Donor:

92,792 people.

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

In a 2011 TED talk, Anthony Atala showed off his pet project: a printer that can make a kidney. The project is just a prototype right now and the kidney doesn't work, but the idea is there. Three-dimensional 'bioprinting' could be an important part of the coming organ revolution, Atala said.

Right now, though, he is still working the old-fashioned way. In 2009 he created miniature kidneys that could even make urine. Atala recently announced that he had successfully removed all the living cells from pig kidneys so that they could then be seeded and used as 'bio-scaffolds' for a patient's own living cells to grow on.


Still a few years away.

Organ: Esophagus/Trachea

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

In July 2011, the first fully lab-grown trachea was successfully transplanted into a man in Sweden. The trachea was grown from his own stem cells (taken from his bone marrow), which were cultured outside of his body on a synthetic scaffold that had been specially created from a scan of his throat. It took 12 hours to implant the new trachea.

'What makes this procedure different is it's the first time that a wholly tissue-engineered synthetic windpipe has been made and successfully transplanted, making it an important milestone for regenerative medicine,' Paolo Macchiarini, a researcher from the University of Barcelona, said in a press release. 'We expect there to be many more exciting applications for the novel polymers we have developed.'


It's currently available.

Organ: Eye

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

A group of Japanese researchers led by Yoshiki Sasai and colleagues at the RIKEN centre for Developmental Biology in Japan have succeeded in growing rudimentary eyes in the lab.

The cell layers of the eye are incredibly specialised.

The researchers were able to watch the eye cells through the whole developmental process, until they formed what's called the 'optic cup' -- a process that had never been observed before. These structures are really important in vision, and the team has been implanting them in blind mice to help restore their vision.


Working on it.

Organ: Pancreas

Current Wait For A Donor:

1,271 people.

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

Dr. Ian Rogers announced in 2010 that his team had been able to build a pancreas out of a surgical sponge seeded with insulin-producing islet cells. They still have a lot of work to do, though.

A full pancreas is a long way out, but in 2010 researchers from Georgetown University Medical centre were able to use tiny slivers of mouse testicles to grow insulin-making cells in the lab. These cells could be transplanted into the mice to make insulin for them, curing their type 1 diabetes.


Unless you are a dude, then give it about five years, researchers said, since women don't have testicles from which they could harvest cells.

Organ: Blood vessels

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

Researchers recently published an account of a new procedure in the journal The Lancet, where they grew a new vein and transplanted it into a 10-year-old girl. They used a vein from a dead donor, and then stripped it of its cells. These cells were replaced with the patient's cells, grown in the lab, and then placed back in the patient.

These veins are better than the currently available man-made veins, which are prone to clots, blockages and are often attacked by the immune system. The vein was also able to grow with the girl as she aged.

'To many of us working in this field, it is a validation of what we believe will be a revolution in medicine,' Dr. Adam Katz, director of plastic surgery research at the University of Florida, told ABC News.

In June, researchers at the University of Washington developed a structure for growing tiny blood vessels in the laboratory. The vessels behave remarkably like those in a living human and offer a better and much more modular approach to studying blood-related diseases, testing drugs and, one day, growing human tissues for transplant.


Coming soon.

Organ: Teeth

Current Progress On A Lab-Grown Organ:

In July 2011, Takashi Tsuji and his team from Tokyo University of Science were able to build fully functional mouse teeth from stem cells. The researchers isolated these stem cells from the mouse molars, then cultured them in a special 'tooth mould' in the lab, then implanted the tooth in the mouse's mouth.

In 40 days, the newly made teeth fused with the mouse jaw and were even innervated by nerve fibres. The mice were able to eat and chew normally.


Ask your dentist.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.