The controversial topic of laboratory-organs has raised its head again this month. For the first time ever, an artificial wind-pipe was successfully grown and implanted into a human body. The patient was suffering from a severe and aggressive throat cancer with a terminal diagnoses. Thanks to incredible advancements in the laboratory environment, the patient is expected to make a full recovery. It’s a resounding charge forward for the scientific and medical community. Though, of course, it is not without its critics.
Laboratory-grown organs hold the key to our medical future and healthcare. As a society, we are facing the difficult struggle of supporting a growing elderly population. With the ability to reproduce organs and ‘spare parts’, we can keep this population healthy for longer. It will allow our society to continue functioning for longer. More importantly, it will save the lives of cancer sufferers. It will change the fate of those with terminal diagnoses. This can only be a good thing.
Replacement body parts are no new invention. Doctors have been inserting synthetic hips and teeth into patients for decades. We have built artificial limbs and created structural ‘scaffolding’ to help repair broken bones. Until now, this practice has been entirely mechanical. It hasn’t involved soft tissue or functioning organs. With the resounding leap forward, things are about to change.
Historically, soft tissue is much more difficult to grow synthetically. You’ll be familiar with the process of heart transplants. Without the right blood type, and donor match, a heart will fail to ‘take’ to its new environment. It’s very tricky to introduce an external soft tissue organ to a new body. However, using the patient’s own stem cells, it is possible to ‘grow’ a new match that suits.
So, how exactly did scientists and doctors create this soft tissue regeneration? Having taken a swab of stem cells from the patient, the scientists were able to craft the organ. Taking place in a laboratory complete with LIMS systems and complex ‘organ scaffolding’, the tissue was nurtured. Using a bioreactor and other cell stimulation equipment, they encouraged the organic growth of a new organ.
It sets a powerful and exciting precedent for the future. Scientists and doctors are already talking about replicating the process with a kidney or liver. With this development, scientists have conquered a whole new boundary, so the next steps will be tentative. Expect more discussion and experimentation to follow. However, we can certainly expect this process to appear more often, saving lives in the process.
Of course, the news is not met with universal good cheer. The critics of stem cell research are loud and fervent. The act of ‘playing God’ is still blasted among some religious communities. The entire process has been dragged through the courts, and the practice is still limited in many countries.
For now, it’s important to celebrate this milestone in medical advancement. The ability to save lives marks a powerful new step for the science and medical communities. We are just scratching the surface of possibility here. The future looks very exciting.