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The miracle of organ regeneration
How we can create & regenerate human organs
According to the American Transplant Foundation, almost 106,000 Americans are on an organ transplant list. Another name is added to that list every nine minutes. What if those people didn’t have to wait for a new organ? What if we could supply them with the organs they needed without waiting for a donor?
It may sound crazy but some brilliant scientists and entrepreneurs are taking this task seriously. In the next decade, the fruits of their labor may change the outlook of organ transplant recipients across the globe.
Natural organ regeneration
Natural regeneration would save a lot of lives. But, unfortunately, our bodies don’t work like this – save for one. What organs can regenerate? According to the Mayo Clinic, only the liver can naturally regenerate itself. Tales of liver regeneration date back to ancient Greek mythology.
Because livers can naturally regenerate, those who rely on liver donation can accept an organ from a living or deceased donor. In a living donor, part of the organ is removed and transplanted into the patient whose liver is damaged because of disease or some other medical issue. After the surgery, the donor’s liver naturally regenerates and the patient’s liver grows to normal size. This is all possible because of natural regeneration.
How organ regeneration will change transplant needs
Rather than stopping at what organ can regenerate itself, scientists have started to explore how they can learn from the liver. Their goal is to, one day, be able to produce enough artificial or regenerated organs that the long transplant lists of today will be a thing of the past.
After long years of experimentation and the support of pioneers like Martine Rothblatt, the CEO and founder of United Therapeutics, scientists have now learned how to regenerate and restore lungs to a stage that enables transplantation. Martine is a powerful visionary who got her start by founding SIRIUS Radio. After SIRIUS’s massive success, she set her sights on achieving more. She turned toward biotechnology after her daughter was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension.
[[Listen to Martine’s interview with Tony Robbins. Skip to 20:23 if you want to get right to the medical breakthroughs discussion.]]
Pairing Martine’s drive to change the world and the impressive medical knowledge of her team, United Therapeutics ended up creating a process where lungs previously thought to be too damaged or dead for a successful transplant can now be restored and preserved for up to 22 hours. This gives doctors enough time to properly harvest the organ, transport it to the recipient’s hospital and perform the patient’s surgery. This experiment is providing hope to many around the world. One hundred percent of the lungs transplanted this way have ended in a successful transplant.
How pigs are providing hope
Another hopeful avenue that organ regeneration is exploring is through the assistance of genetically modified pig organs. Using genetically modified pigs may seem futuristic but it is the natural next step. The organs of an adult pig are similar in size to that of an adult human. Pigs are also plentiful. In America alone, nearly 130 million pigs a year are used as a food source. Just 1% of those pigs would provide enough organs for every transplant need.
Although they fit the bill in terms of size and attainability, without being genetically engineered, or “humanized,” the patient’s body could trigger a destructive immune response. But when genetically modified, they could prove to be the answer the world needs.
Clinical trials are set to start within the next few years. If successful, these organs could provide off-the-shelf organs for everyone on every single transplant list in the world. Since they are risk-free for viral contamination or life-threatening immune response, they may end up being even stronger and more successful than a human-to-human transplant.
Scientists are also exploring how to regenerate lungs by combining the recipient’s stem cells with pig collagen scaffold to force the regeneration process. Since this process is essentially starting from scratch, the DNA in the new regenerated organ will match that of the patient. This eliminates the chance of organ rejection and the need for a lifetime supply of immunosuppressant drugs.
Could 3D-printed organs be a solution?
If the pigs can’t regenerate organs, 3D-printed organs may be another solution. Scientists have been 3D printing skin and bladders for over 20 years. Leading researcher Dr. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is working on finding a way to bioprint everything from cartilage to kidneys. Biocomplex organs such as hearts, kidneys, livers and lungs are proving to be harder to replicate but Dr. Atala and his team keep working.
Are lymph nodes the answer to organ regeneration?
Another brilliant scientist, Eric Lagasse, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh has been studying lymph nodes for decades. He hypothesizes that if we turn lymph nodes into bioreactors, they will grow and multiply to form a functional mini-organ. Dr. Lagasse and the company LyGenesis are in phase 2 of the human clinical trial with mini-livers. The new mini-organs performed well in the animal trials and similar results are expected in phase 2.
If successful, these mini-organs would change the lives of many. One donor organ can supply cells for up to 75 patients; an organ that could have saved one person can now save many. The procedure is also tolerable for patients previously considered too sick to be on the transplant list. The only downside is that this method comes with a long wait, as organ regeneration takes time.
Cyborg kidneys and other regenerated organs
Dr. Harald Ott of Massachusetts General is known around the world for his work in whole organ regeneration. He founded IVIVA Medical to expand his research and work in the hopes of finding a solution for those in end-phase renal failure. His work consists of stripping a cadaver organ of its cells and then infusing the remaining scaffold with fresh stem cells. This process could produce a variety of organs.
To work with the time delays of having to wait for a cadaver and the long amount of organ regeneration time needed after that, Dr. Ott replicated this process with a synthetic scaffold. His work resulted in a cyborg kidney. IVIVA Medical is hoping to support human clinical trials of these cyborg kidneys in the near future.
Organ regeneration is interesting and complex – and gives us hope for a better future. One day, maybe soon, we’ll have access to a full range of regenerated organs to replace our existing, unhealthy ones. This could change the way we heal and live forever. To read more about these and other live-changing medical advancements, check out Tony Robbins’ newest book, Life Force.