Over the past few years, the biotech community has continued to advance technologies leading to the ability to craft new biomaterials. Through 3D printing and cell cloning, now more than ever, it is possible to imagine growing “replacement parts” for the human body. The latest of these compelling stories involves the creation of human lungs by scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch in a lab — one of the most impressive steps yet toward making regenerative medicine a reality — which will eventually lead to practical options for those in need of a lung transplant.
Dr. Joan Nichols, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch, characterized it best by saying, “It’s so darn cool. It’s been science fiction and we’re moving into science fact,” according to a CNN report by John Bonifield and CNN intern Arianna Yanes.
It still remains to be seen if the lungs will actually work inside a real person. However, if they turn out to be functional, being able to grow lungs and other organs in the lab would help to clear the long backlogs of patients waiting for transplants. In the case of lung transplants, there are currently 1,600 people waiting for a new set of lungs.
What’s more amazing is that researchers have managed to create even more functional recreations of tracheas and livers — two other body parts that are also in high demand among patients awaiting donors.
“Whole-organ engineering is going to work as a solution to the organ donor shortage,” said Dr. Stephen Badylak, deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
The researchers in Galveston, Texas, developed the process of crafting the lungs with donated lungs that were too damaged to be used in a transplant, but intact enough to be used in the experiment. The researchers stripped away virtually everything from one of the lungs except for a remaining scaffolding of collagen and elastin. They then added cells from another lung and immersed the lung frame into a chamber filled with cell-growing nutrients. After just four weeks, a fully lab-engineered lung had grown from the scaffold and cells.
The scientists then took cells from the other lung and put them on the scaffolding. They immersed the structure in a large chamber filled with a liquid “resembling Kool-Aid,” Nichols said, which provided nutrients for the cells to grow. After about four weeks, an engineered human lung emerged. Scientists were then able to repeat the process, and crafted a second lung using the same process.
Researchers believe that, while the lung-growing experiment worked surprisingly well, the biotechnology is not quite ready for prime time. In fact, they anticipate that it could be another 12 years before using lab-crafted lungs are able to be successfully implanted into humans. The first step will be to try out the lungs on pigs.