Artificial organs – science fiction or reality?

Since the dawn of modern molecular biology and cell biology in the 1950s, many people have been dreaming of a day one can create organs in the laboratory from patients’ cell samples. Every year many patients die in hospitals due to malfunctioning or failing organs caused by various diseases or accidents. Organ transplantation from donors has many complications and remains risky due to the rejection of foreign tissues by the immune system.

Compatibility is often rare and researchers have been searching for a solution of this problem for a long time. In recent years there have been great advances in the new so-called field of tissue engineering, which focuses on the creation of human tissues and organs grown in the laboratory. One of the pioneering laboratories has been the Vacanti laboratory in Boston/ MA. The laboratory focuses on the interface between fundamental and translational research. Now, researchers at the Frauenhofer Institut in Stuttgart/ Germany have started to engineer human skin samples and aim to supply 5000 of these every month. Cambridge has just announced a meeting in October on musculoskeletal tissue engineering and Oxford even has a centre for tissue engineering actively involved in this research. The main advantage of the creation of tissues and organs from the laboratory is that they are virtually samples of one’s own body and will not face any rejection. Furthermore, such a technique could eliminate organ shortage, which costs so many lives every year.

However, the engineering of human tissues has been a great challenge for researchers. Until now successful applications in Europe have mainly been limited to the creation of new cartilage that can be transplanted.

Do we need to be afraid? Are all these laboratories fragments of our greatest nightmares stemming from science fiction movies and the fear of the unknown? Are we interfering with something better left alone?

These are all very valid ethical questions and need to be addressed before any such research is conducted. Furthermore, the public needs to know what people are doing and what public research money is spent on. I have been involved in biomedical research for a while now and am happy to comment on any of our readers’ comments.

What will organ transplantation look like in a decade from now? This is something that is likely to concern many of us in one way or another.

Image reproduced from http://newsroom.stemcells.wisc.edu

Artificial Pancreas Tested at Cambridge University

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have demonstrated the usability of an artificial pancreas for patients with Type 1 diabetes. The apparatus allows the regulation of the patient’s blood sugar levels during night time and thus prevents hypoglycaemia, i.e. low blood sugar levels.

If blood sugar levels fall to low, patients can experience warning signs such as irritability, shakiness and heart pounding. At night, however, these signs often remain unnoticed, leading to permanent damage or even to fatality. Dr. Roman Havorka at the Institute for Metabolic Science of the university has been leading two studies on the applicability of the artificial pancreas. After the promising test results, he proposed that the device might be applicable for the usage at home, which will be included in the next test series.

The artificial organ itself includes two parts, an insulin pump and a glucose level monitor. It is the first time that both technologies have been successfully combined. Active research in the UK also encompasses the creation of a bioengineered pancreas including beta cells to create insulin. However, research in that area is still in its infancy as we reported previously.

The new technology tested at the university may help many people in the UK. Since the year 1996 the number of people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK has increased from around 1.4 million to 2.6 million. It is estimated that by 2025 over four million people will have diabetes in Britain. These alarming figures show that diabetes is one of the major health challenges over the next decades. Although most of these people are predicted to have Type 2 diabetes due to an aging population, a strong increase in Type 1 diabetes is also expected due to wrong dieting. New technology such as the one demonstrated here will potentially benefit millions of people.

Image: courtesy of the University of Cambridge