As of June 21st, 2013, there were more than 118,000 people in the United States waiting for life-saving organ transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Every 10 minutes another individual is added to this list.
Despite the persistent need, only a small portion of those in need receive transplants annually, leaving patients, doctors and family members looking for alternative options. Now, experts feel genetically engineered organs may offer a way to close the gap on donor shortages.
The goal is not to mass-produce genetically engineered organs for the public. According to a report from Natural News, the goal of using genetic engineering technology for organ donors is to refine the process, which would allow scientists to use cells from a patient’s body to regenerate an organ for that individual. This way there would be minimal risk of rejection of the organ by the body once it is transplanted surgically.
This technology uses transplanted cells to set off a chain of reactions which encourages the body to make replacement tissue, eventually taking the place of the original cells which were transplanted. The process is often referred to as a seed-and scaffold approach, and is named thus because of how organs are encouraged to grow.
According to a report from CNS News, the seed-and-scaffold process starts with cells donated by a patient either through biopsy or through a blood draw. These cells are then taken to the laboratory where they are placed on what is called a scaffold, or mold, of the organ needed.
So far only hollow and flat-plane organs have been successfully produced, but dozens of people are now leading healthy lives with genetically engineered organs like bladder, urethras, windpipes, and blood vessels.
While it is not possible yet, scientists are working toward creating solid organs like lungs, livers and hearts. These organs will be more difficult to develop, explained a report from The Scientist, because they require a complex network of blood vessels to keep tissue healthy and viable while in the body.
“Every cell needs to eat and breathe, and each one needs to be close to a source of nutrition and oxygen,” Dr. Joseph Vacanti told The Scientist. “People differ about whether it’ll be achieved in 5 or 100 years, but most people in the field believe that it’s a realistic goal.”
Ethical concerns regarding genetically engineered organs
If you’ve heard about genetically engineered organs before, chances are you’ve heard there is a controversy surrounding them. This ethical debate is not usually linked to growing donor organs in a lab setting using an individual’s own cells, but is more often linked to the use of growing genetically engineered organs inside animals–primarily pigs.
But the human body does not like a pure pig organ and will reject it, so experts have needed to genetically engineer pigs to make them more human-like. This type of organ farming is frowned upon by animal advocates, especially because the success rate of such transplants is very minimal, and because there is an ethical debate about combining the genetics of two species which were never meant to be combined.
The use of genetically-altered pigs for organ growth is also a very expensive and timely process. Not only do the genetics have to be introduced into the pigs initially before birth, but human-pigs then have to then be allowed to mature to adulthood where they can be bred to produce more of their own kind. All that effort for them to eventually be harvested for attempted organ transplants which rarely see success.
Compared to this labor-intensive process, growing organs using a scaffold system is much easier even though the technology is not yet fully developed.
“The final organ will never ever be as beautifully perfect as a natural organ,” said Paolo Macchiarini from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, “but the difference is that you don’t need a donation. It can be offered to a patient in need within days or weeks.”