After the interesting post Bacteria in a Barbie World, Magdalena Assaad shared with us this extremely interesting article she wrote about a huge update in transplant medicine. Cheers to revolutionising ideas !
Cardiovascular disease is the leading global cause of death : according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 17 million people die yearly of cardiovascular ailments, most of them due to heart disease, and this number is expected to exceed 23.6 million by 2030. More than half of the patients do not benefit from drugs, and the best solution is to obtain a new heart.
Consequently, the demand for hearts keeps increasing while the availability is almost the same. Out of the 4,000 Americans waiting for their heart transplants, only 2,500 will receive new hearts in the coming year. And even when a heart is obtained, there’s a high risk of the host body rejecting the transplanted organ by initiating an immune reaction against the foreign heart cells.
Scientists have been looking for effective permanent solutions for these problems while minimizing the complications that may arise after the procedure, and the answer found is to make synthetic organs from the patient’s own cells.
A team of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School is working on this project, using adult skin cells to generate human heart tissue and their study was published recently in the journal Circulation Research.
Looking at this solution, one might find it trivial, considering that scientists grow cells in labs very frequently, however this particular solution is far more complicated, since the grown tissues are not intended to fill a petri dish, but have the architecture of the needed organ, the heart with its cavities that are naturally meticulously designed to complete their functions perfectly.
Cells are usually easily grown on scaffolds, and scientists needed a scaffold for their cell culture. In previous research, 3D heart segments were fabricated by 3D printers using biological material and these structures can serve as scaffold on which heart tissue can be grown, yet the group of scientists opted for a better procedure.
They used a detergent solution that strips a donor organ (not fit for transplantation) of cells that may launch an immune response in the recipient: the cells were turned into pluripotent stem cells by using adult skin cells and messenger RNA while the remaining of the heart would serve as a scaffold.
Pluripotent cells have the ability of specializing to any type of cell in the human body. For this experiment they were transformed into two different types of cardiac cells that develop and grow on the scaffold when bathed with nutrient solution.
After two weeks, the networks of lab-grown heart cells resembled immature but intricately structured hearts. Once given a burst of electricity, the hearts started beating.
Any heart cells grown in this way are recognized by the patient’s immune system as “friendly”, as long as the original skin cells are obtained from their own body in the first place. In other words, these lab-grown hearts will be specially designed for the patient and won’t be rejected once transplanted.
Regrowing a whole heart would take tens of billions of cells, while this study manufactured only 500 million cells so far. The team is still improving methods to generate more cardiac cells at a faster time, help the cells mature more quickly and perfect the body-like conditions in which the heart develops.
If successful, this project might change medicine as we know it, where cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure won’t be seen as life threatening risks. Additionally, other organs may be made of stem cells as well. The long organs waiting list will cease to exist, while patients can obtain a second chance for living happy healthy lives.
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