The uneven supply and demand for human organs has been an issue for decades. Though the transplant waiting list is said to be “the gift of a lifetime,” many people will never get their present.
Let’s talk numbers.
In the United States alone, six patients are added to the waiting list every hour. That’s about the time it takes for a healthy American to take a shower, drive to work, or watch one episode of a Netflix show. Every day, 22 people on the list pass away while waiting for a lung, a kidney, a heart, a liver, an intestine, or a pancreas. Someone’s mom, someone’s big brother, or someone’s best friend didn’t get the organ they needed, and it cost them their life.
In response, medical researches have been developing ways to up the supply of human organs… artificially.
While some in the medical profession are focusing on printing 3D organs in labs or building mechanical ones, others are developing ways to grow them in pigs or sheep, also called chimeras. “To make chimeras, researchers isolate one animal’s stem cells, which can develop into any cell type in the body. They then inject some stem cells from one species into the embryo of another,” says National Geographic.
While mankind is a while away from accomplishing this task, a break through has us one step closer.
Mixing & Matching
At the 2018 American Association for the Advancements of Science meeting earlier this month, University of California, Davis’ researcher Pablo Ross shared that him and his counterparts were able to raise the human cell count in sheep embryos to one in 10 thousand, a dramatic change from prior experiments. Previous attempts at this procedure — done with pig embryos — produced a human cell count of one in a 100 thousand, much too low for successful transplants.
In short, Ross has produced the second successful human-animal hybrid in history, developing “sheep embryos that are 0.01% human by cell count.”
The embryos were not allowed to live past 28 days old, but this is still a major move towards artificially growing human organs. If they can perfect the science, it may mean that more people on the transplant waiting list will be provided with an organ, and less people will die waiting.
“If the embryo’s DNA is hacked so that it does not grow a particular organ, the interloping cells would be the only ones that could fill in the gap. In this way, researchers could grow a human liver inside of a living pig,” reports National Geographic.
“We think that that’s still not probably enough to generate an organ,” Ross said during the annual meeting. According to The Guardian, for the artificially grown organ to successfully take inside of a person, the embryo would need to be about one percent human. More than that, much more work would need to be done to ensure that all animal viruses are wiped from the animal’s DNA to prevent immune rejection.
Of course, this type of controversial work threw the medical professionals’ code of ethics into questioning, because of the issues surrounding studies performed on living animals. “All of these approaches are controversial, and none of them are perfect, but they offer hope to people who are dying on a daily basis,” Ross said in response. “We need to explore all possible alternatives to provide organs to ailing people.”
“The contribution of human cells so far is very small. It’s nothing like a pig with a human face or human brain,” Stanford University researcher Hiro Nakauchi, Ross’s partner, chimed in.
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