Biotech Breakthrough: Fully-Functioning Organ Grown

artificial-thymusOrgan transplants are one of the greatest medical advances of the 20th century. Where patients once faced disability or even death, they’ve been given a new lease on life in the form of donated organs. The problem is that the supply of suitable donor organs has always been in a state of severe shortage. Not only is it entirely dependent on accident victims who have signed their organ donor card, there is also the issue of genetic suitability.

For decades, scientists have worked on producing lab-grown organs to pick up the slack left by the donor system. The research has yielded some positive results in the form of simple organs, such as the artificial esophagus and “mini-kidneys.” Nevertheless, the creation of whole, complex, functional organs that can be swapped for damaged or destroyed ones has remained out of reach. That is, until now.

fibroblastScientists at the University of Edinburgh have grown a fully-functional organ inside a mouse, a breakthrough that opens up the possibility of one day manufacturing compatible organs for transplant without the need for donors. Using mouse embryo cells, scientists at the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine created an artificial thymus gland with the same structure and function as an adult organ.

The University of Edinburgh team produced the artificial thymus gland using a technique that the scientists call “reprogramming.” It involves fibroblast cells, which form connective tissue in animals, being removed from a mouse embryo and then treated with a protein called FOXN1 to change them into thymic epithelial cells (TEC). These were then mixed with other thymus cells and transplanted into living mice by grafting them to the animal’s kidneys.

T-cellThen, over a period of four weeks, the cells grew into a complete, functioning thymus gland that can produce T cells – an important part of the immune system. According to the scientists, this development goes beyond previous efforts because the thymus serves such a key part in protecting the body against infection and in eliminating cancer cells. This is clearly the first step on the road towards complete organ development.

The team is currently working on refining the reprogramming technique in the hope of developing a practical medical procedure, such as creating bespoke thymus glands made to match a patient’s own T cells. They see the development of a lab-grown thymus as a way of treating cancer patients whose immune system has been compromised by radiation or chemotherapy, and children born with malfunctioning thymuses.

bioprintingAccording to Rob Buckle, Head of Regenerative Medicine at the MRC, the potential is tremendous and far-reaching:

Growing ‘replacement parts’ for damaged tissue could remove the need to transplant whole organs from one person to another, which has many drawbacks – not least a critical lack of donors. This research is an exciting early step towards that goal, and a convincing demonstration of the potential power of direct reprogramming technology, by which one cell type is converted to another. However, much more work will be needed before this process can be reproduced in the lab environment, and in a safe and tightly controlled way suitable for use in humans.

Combined with “bioprinting” – where stem cells are printed into organs using a 3-D printer – organs transplants could very well evolve to the point where made-to-order replacements are fashioned from patient’s own genetic material. This would not only ensure that there is never any shortages or waiting lists, but that there would be no chance of incompatibility or donor rejection.

Another step on the road to clinical immortality! And be sure to check out this video of the artificial thymus gland being grown, courtesy of the Medical Research Council:


Biomedical Breakthroughs: Vascular Network Bioprinting

bioprintingThe ability to generate biological tissues using 3-D printing methods – aka. “bioprinting” – may one day help medical researchers and hospitals to create artificial, on-demand custom body parts and organs for patients. And numerous recent advancements – such as the creation of miniature kidneys, livers, and stem cell structures – are bringing that possibility closer to reality.

And now, according to a new study produced by researchers from the University of Sydney, it is now possible to bioprint artificial vascular networks that mimic the body’s circulatory system. Being able to bio-print an artificial vascular network would give us the ability to keep tissue and organs alive where previously it would not have been possible. The body’s vascular network enables it to transport blood and, therefore, oxygen and nutrients, to tissues and organs.

vascularIt also provides a means of transporting waste materials away from tissues and organs. Dr. Luiz Bertassoni. the lead author of the study explained:

Cells die without an adequate blood supply because blood supplies oxygen that’s necessary for cells to grow and perform a range of functions in the body. To illustrate the scale and complexity of the bio-engineering challenge we face, consider that every cell in the body is just a hair’s width from a supply of oxygenated blood. Replicating the complexity of these networks has been a stumbling block preventing tissue engineering from becoming a real world clinical application.

In order to solve this problem, the researchers used a bioprinter to create a framework of tiny interconnected fibers to serve as a mold. The structure was then covered with a “cell-rich protein-based material” and solidified using light. The fibers were removed to leave a network of tiny channels that formed into stable human blood-capillaries within just a week’s time.

stem_cells3According to the University of Sydney study, the technique demonstrated better cell survival, differentiation and proliferation compared to cells that received no nutrient supply. In addition, it provides the ability to create large, life-supporting three-dimensional, micro-vascular channels quickly and with the precision required for application to different individuals.

This is a major step forward for the bioprinting industry, according to Bertassoni:

While recreating little parts of tissues in the lab is something that we have already been able to do, the possibility of printing three-dimensional tissues with functional blood capillaries in the blink of an eye is a game changer.

bioprinter1In addition, Bertassoni claims that the ultimate aim of the research is for patients to be able to walk into a hospital and have a full organ printed with all the cells, proteins and blood vessels in the right place:

We are still far away from that, but our research is addressing exactly that. Our finding is an important new step towards achieving these goals. At the moment, we are pretty much printing ‘prototypes’ that, as we improve, will eventually be used to change the way we treat patients worldwide.

Bioprinting that uses a patient’s own DNA to generate custom-made organs and tissues offers a world of medical possibilities in which organ donors are no longer necessary, and the risk of rejection and incompatibility is negligible. Not only that, it will usher in a world where no injury is permanent and prosthetics are a thins of the past.


The Future is Here: Deka Mind-Controlled Arm Gets FDA Approval!

Deka_armFor years, biomedical researchers have been developing robotic prosthetics of greater and greater sophistication. From analog devices that can be quickly and cheaply manufactured by a 3-D printer, to mind-controlled prosthetics that move, to ones that both move and relay sensory information, the technology is growing by leaps and bounds. And just last week, the FDA officially announced it had approved the first prosthetic arm that’s capable of performing multiple simultaneous powered movements.

The new Deka arm – codenamed Luke, after Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand – was developed by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. The project began in 2006 when DARPA funded multiple research initiatives in an attempt to create a better class of prosthetic device for veterans returning home from the Iraq War. Now, the FDA’s approval is a huge step for the Deka, as it means the devices are now clear for sale — provided the company can find a commercial partner willing to bring them to market.

Deka_arm1Compared to other prosthetics, the Deka Arm System is a battery-powered device that combines multiple approaches. Some of the Deka’s functions are controlled by myoelectricity, which means the device senses movement in various muscle groups via attached electrodes, then converts those muscle movements into motor control. This allows the user a more natural and intuitive method of controlling the arm rather than relying on a cross-body pulley system.

Deka_Arm2The more advanced myoelectric systems can even transmit sensation back to the user, using the same system of electrodes to simulate pressure sensation for the user. This type of control flexibility is essential to creating a device that can address the wide range of needs from various amputees, and the Deka’s degree of fine-grained control is remarkable. Not only are user’s able to perform a wide range of movements and articulations with the hand, they are able to sense what they are doing thanks to the small pads on the fingertips and palm.

Naturally, the issue of price remains, which is consequently the greatest challenge facing the wide-scale adoption of these types of devices. A simple prosthestic arm is likely to cost $3000, while a sophisticated prosthesis can run as much as $50,000. In many cases, limbs have a relatively short lifespan, with wear and tear requiring a replacement device 3 to 4 years. Hence why 3-D printed variations, which do not boast much sophistication, are considered a popular option.

bionic-handVisual presentation is also a major issue, as amputees often own multiple prostheses (including cosmetic ones) simply to avoid the embarrassment of wearing an obviously artificial limb. That’s one reason why the Deka Arm System’s design has evolved towards a much more normal-looking hand. Many amputees don’t want to wear a crude-looking mechanical device.

At present, the prosthetic market is still too broad, and the needs of amputees too specific to declare any single device as a one-size-fits-all success. But the Deka looks as though it could move the science of amputation forward and offer a significant number of veterans and amputees a device that more closely mimics natural human function than anything we’ve seen before. What’s more, combined with mind-controlled legs, bionic eyes and replacement organs, it is a major step forward in the ongoing goal of making disability a thing of the past.

And in the meantime, check out this DARPA video of the Deka Arm being tested:



The Future of Medicine: Replacement Ears and “Mini Hearts”

biomedicineBiomedicine is doing some amazing things these days, so much so that I can hardly keep up with the rate of developments. Just last month, two amazing ones were made, offering new solutions for replacing human tissue and treating chronic conditions. The first has to do with a new method of growing human using a patients own DNA, while the second involves using a patient’s own heart tissue to create “mini hearts” to aid in circulation.

The first comes from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, where researchers are working on a process that will grow human ears using genetic material taken from a patient’s own fat tissue. Building upon recent strides made in the field of bioprinting, this process will revolution reconstructive surgery as we know it. It also seeks to bring change to an area of medicine which, despite being essential for accident victims, has been sadly lacking in development.

replacement_earCurrently, the procedure to repair damaged or non-existent cartilage in the ear involves an operation that is usually carried out when the patient is a child. For the sake of this procedure, cartilage is extracted from the patient’s ribs and painstakingly crafted into the form of an ear before being grafted back onto the individual. Whilst this method of reconstruction achieves good results, it also comes with its share of unpleasant side effects.

Basically, the patient is left with a permanent defect around the area from where the cells were harvested, as the cartilage between the ribs does not regenerate. In this new technique, the cartilage cells are engineered from mesenchymal stem cells, extracted from the child’s abdominal adipose (fat) tissue. The benefit of this new system is that unlike the cartilage in the ribs, the adipose tissue regenerates, therefore leaving no long-term defect to the host.

stem_cells1There is also the potential to begin reconstructive treatment with stem cells derived from adipose tissue earlier than previously possible, as it takes time for the ribs to grow enough cartilage to undergo the procedure. As Dr. Patrizia Ferretti, a researcher working on the project, said in a recent interview:

One of the main benefits in using the patient’s own stem cells is that there is no need for immune suppression which would not be desirable for a sick child, and would reduce the number of severe procedures a child needs to undergo.

To create the form of the ear, a porous polymer nano-scaffold is placed in with the stem cells. The cells are then chemically induced to become chondrocytes (aka. cartilage cells) while growing into the holes in the scaffold to create the shape of the ear. According to Dr. Ferretti, cellularized scaffolds – themselves a recent medical breakthrough – are much better at integrating than fully-synthetic implants, which are more prone to extrusion and infection.

cartilage2Dr. Ferretti continued that:

While we are developing this approach with children with ear defects in mind, it could ultimately be utilized in other types of reconstructive surgery both in children and adults.

Basically, this new, and potentially more advantageous technique would replace the current set of procedures in the treatment of defects in cartilage in children such as microtia, a condition which prevents the ear from forming correctly. At the same time, the reconstructive technology also has the potential to be invaluable in improving the quality of life of those who have been involved in a disfiguring accident or even those injured in the line of service.

mini_hearts`Next up, there is the “mini heart” created by Dr. Narine Sarvazyan of George Washington University in Washington D.C.. Designed to be wrapped around individual veins, these cuffs of rhythmically-contracting heart tissue are a proposed solution to the problem of chronic venous insufficiency – a condition where leg veins suffer from faulty valves, which prevents oxygen-poor blood from being pumped back to the heart.

Much like process for creating replacement ears, the mini hearts are grown  by coaxing a patient’s own adult stem cells into becoming cardiac cells. When one of those cuffs is placed around a vein, its contractions aid in the unidirectional flow of blood, plus it helps keep the vein from becoming distended. Additionally, because it’s grown from the patient’s own cells, there’s little chance of rejection. So far, the cuffs have been grown in the lab, where they’ve also been tested. But soon, Sarvazyan hopes to conduct animal trials.

mini_hearts2As Sarvazyan explained, the applications here far beyond treating venous insufficiency. In addition, there are the long-range possibilities for organ replacement:

We are suggesting, for the first time, to use stem cells to create, rather than just repair damaged organs. We can make a new heart outside of one’s own heart, and by placing it in the lower extremities, significantly improve venous blood flow.

One of the greatest advantages of the coming age of biomedicine is the ability to replace human limbs, organs and tissue using organic substitutions. And the ability to grow these from the patient’s own tissue is a major plus, in that it cuts down on the development process and ensures a minimal risk of rejection. On top of all that, the ability to create replacement organs would also significantly cut down on the costs of replacement tissue, as well as the long waiting periods associated with donor lists.

Imagine that, if you will. A future where a patient suffering from liver, kidney, circulatory, or heart problems is able to simply visit their local hospital or clinic, donate a meager supply of tissue, and receive a healthy, fully-compatible replacement after an intervening period (days or maybe even hours). The words “healthy living” will achieve new meaning!


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