Tissue engineers have succeeded in making artificial organs that use a patient’s cells to become a living part of the body, with hope for eventual organ regeneration.
So far, only a few organs have been made and transplanted, and they are relatively simple, hollow ones — like bladders and Mr. Beyene’s windpipe, which was implanted in June 2011. But scientists around the world are using similar techniques with the goal of building more complex organs. At Wake Forest University in North Carolina, for example, where the bladders were developed, researchers are working on kidneys, livers and more. Labs in China and the Netherlands are among many working on blood vessels.
The work of these new body builders is far different from the efforts that produced artificial hearts decades ago. Those devices, which are still used temporarily by some patients awaiting transplants, are sophisticated machines, but in the end they are only that: machines.
Tissue engineers aim to produce something that is more human. They want to make organs with the cells, blood vessels and nerves to become a living, functioning part of the body. Some, like Dr. Macchiarini, want to go even further — to harness the body’s repair mechanisms so that it can remake a damaged organ on its own.
Researchers are making use of advances in knowledge of stem cells, basic cells that can be transformed into types that are specific to tissues like liver or lung. They are learning more about what they call scaffolds, compounds that act like mortar to hold cells in their proper place and that also play a major role in how cells are recruited for tissue repair.
Tissue engineers caution that the work they are doing is experimental and costly, and that the creation of complex organs is still a long way off. But they are increasingly optimistic about the possibilities.