There are many ways in which the power of regenerative medicine can be leveraged to either prevent or treat diseases. From cell injections used to heal spinal cord injuries to neural cell transplantation as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s. But perhaps the most impressive of all the applications of stem cell research is the possibility of creating entire new organs custom-built for individuals.
For decades this has been the premise of several works of science fiction, from literature to cinema. Creating fully functional individualized ‘replacement parts’ is the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine. Thanks to exciting advancements like 3D bioprinting and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), scientists now have the ability to create organs in a lab. Once this process is perfected and organs on-demand become available to the public, organ transplantation as we know it will change forever.
Cell banking is at the center of this medical revolution. At Acorn, we take a sample of your cells, extracted from hair follicles, and shield them from the effects of aging. This means that in the future, were you to need them for any kind of treatment, they would retain the therapeutic potential they had the day the sample was taken.
How organ transplantation works today
The ability to take an organ from a donor and transplant it to a patient who needs it remains one of the greatest advancements in the history of medicine. Dr. Joseph Murray from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital carried out the first successful organ transplant in 1954. The organ transplanted was a kidney and the donor was the patient’s twin brother. For his work, Dr. Murray received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990.
This procedure opened the door to the successful transplantation of other organs, both from living and deceased donors. According to the World Health Organization, more than 100,000 organs are transplanted every year. This means that millions of people have had their lives saved or greatly improved thanks to this advancement.
However, medicine still needs to overcome certain obstacles to make transplantation available to all who need it. These include the risk of organ rejection and the difficulty in finding matching donors. As reported by The Organ Project, approximately 4,500 people are currently waiting for organ donation in Canada. Unfortunately, not all of them will be able to find a donor in time.
How regenerative medicine will revolutionize organ transplantation
Building upon the findings of many scientists before them, a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University created the world’s first 3D-printed vascularised heart. This is a monumental achievement that paves the way towards eventually being able to create organs on-demand.
They took a sample of a subject’s cells and turned them into iPSCs. These are cells that, just like embryonic stem cells, have the potential to become any cell type in the body. Then they differentiated these iPSCs into cardiomyocytes (heart cells) and endothelial cells (these constitute the lining of blood vessels).
They also developed an extracellular matrix (a network of molecules that gives structural support to cells) and processed it into a hydrogel. This hydrogel, combined with the subject’s now differentiated cells, was used as bio-ink. Employing a bioprinter called 3DDiscovery, this bio-ink was used to create cardiac patches. According to the scientists, these patches fully match the immunological, biochemical, and anatomical properties of the patient. This means that in an eventual transplant, the patient’s immune system would not perceive the organ as foreign, which could lead to rejection.
While this organ is just the size of a rabbit’s heart, the scientists demonstrated that this procedure is effective at creating freestanding cellular structures as complex as the human heart. The next step is to work on the functional aspect. ‘We need to develop the printed heart further,’ said Prof. Tal Dvir of TAU. ‘The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method’s efficacy and usefulness.’
How you can take action today
How far are we from seeing this research materialize into actual treatment for heart failure? Prof. Dvir is confident that it could happen within the next decade. ‘Maybe, in ten years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely’, he says.
As we mentioned earlier, cell banking is the first step that you can take to put yourself and your family in a position to take advantage of the many procedures that will come to fruition in the future. This includes the creation of organs on-demand, as well as treatment for Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injury, among others. To learn more about cell banking at Acorn, click here.