Tuesday, July 02, 2019

What Are You After, Sir? We’ve Got Some Great Bladders, Just In

Remarkable steps in scientific research and engineering has begun to really heat up at the regulated temperature of the human body, as scientists are now building human organs. With the ground-breaking potential of stem cell research, scientists use a person’s own stem cells, borrowed from bone marrow or other places, and implant these into the organ to be built. One of the biggest problems with organ transplants is that patients, after having waited for years at a time in some cases, if they eventually do get a new organ, must live out a constant struggle with immunosuppressant drugs to avoid their body rejecting the foreign exchange.

The most poignant benefits of using a patient’s own cells, instead of those from a fetus, or using an organ from a donor, is that the patient would have to wait only a few weeks, instead of years. On top of this, the organ is personally designed.

When first hearing about this, some quite bizarre images appear, not unlike getting one of those pills and putting it in water where it magically becomes a truck or bored stegosaurus before one’s very eyes. In fact, it’s probably not dissimilar. A bio-printer is used, that works the same way as a 3D printer, which essentially works like a normal printer but instead of it being flat, the printer has a sort of glue that allows it to stack the printing matter into any 3D shape essentially. The bio-printer does this with cells. The first construction of an organ was successfully accomplished in Spain in 2008, where the first patient ever was fitted with an artificially natural windpipe.

Dr Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, has been striding in research in this field and is at the forefront, with significant breakthroughs with organs such as bladders and urethras. He explains how there are four different levels of complexities with these organs:
  • Flat structures, such as the skin, are the simplest to engineer as they are generally made up of just the one type of cell.
  • Tubes, such as blood vessels and urethras, which have two types of cells and act as a conduit.
  • Hollow non-tubular organs like the bladder and the stomach, which have more complex structures and functions.
  • Solid organs, such as the kidney, heart and liver, are the most complex to engineer. They are exponentially more complex, have many different cell types, and more challenges in the blood supply.
Atala says that the first three have been successfully implanted, but solid organs such as the heart, are much too complex as of yet.

To build an organ in this way, Atala describes the method. It starts with taking a tissue sample from the organ in need of repair or replacement. These cells are then grown into large quantities over the space of a month, and during this time, a “scaffold” is built in the shape of the organ, the bladder for example, or just the part of the bladder necessary. The fully grown cells are then placed one at a time onto the scaffold so described as a “layer cake”. Piece by piece. The ‘cake’ is then baked at the temperature of the human body and it is ready to be implanted. The scaffold is absorbed by the body, and the cells take their new place.

The possibilities for this technology and latest tech advancements in the healthcare sector are miraculous to say the least. In time, they’ll be selling extra toes, with personalized embossments, in a range of colors and textures. But in all seriousness, how far should we go with this type of research?

At the end of the day, maybe things should be left to run their course. Or maybe not. It’s a very awkward position, when dealing with lives, and deaths, and family, and pain.

This is a guest blog entry. 

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