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Using Medical Science to Treat, Prevent and Cure Disease: Stem Cells and Organ Growth

written by: AlyssaAst•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 6/30/2011

An amazing breakthrough has occurred with the use of stem cells to grow human organs. With this breakthrough, researchers are hoping to one day eliminate the need for organ transplant waiting lists.

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    For years, scientists and researchers have been trying to develop a way to grow human organs using stem cells. What was once thought to be a shot in the dark is now close to becoming a reality as breakthrough after breakthrough is made with the use of stem cells to grow human organs. Although the use of stem cells is often under scrutiny, there are numerous benefits that can be achieved should it become a reality to safely grow human organs. Patients on long waiting lists who are seeking an organ transplant may become a thing of the past, as body parts can indeed be grown using stem cells.

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    How Does It Work?

    The goal behind growing organs from stem cells is to one day replace the need for organ transplants altogether by growing new tissue internally or externally. It’s hoped this technique can one day be used to re-grow limbs as well. Using a combination of medicine, biology and genetic engineering, the single cells produced are hoped to develop into new, healthy organs, which can either be produced within a patient or in a simulated environment. Progress has already been made with recreating body parts, as scientists are now able to create artificial bone.

    One area scientists and researchers are focusing on is creating internal organ growth, or Neo-organs. With this method, cells are able to regenerate into whole tissues with the use of biodegradable polymers and scaffolding materials within the body. As the cells replicate into tissues, the other materials used are broken down and exit the body as a waste product.

    Another area that's being studied is the ability to grow organs externally. With this process, molds of structures, such as a bladder, are needed. Using the patient's own cells in the bioresorbable scaffolds, the new organ can be grown. After the organ has matured, it can then be implanted into the body. This technique is also used with animals. By using animals as a simulated environment, the human stem cells are injected into an animal’s fetus to grow the new tissue. Upon birth, the organ is then removed and transplanted into the human body.

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    Growing Human Body Parts

    Researchers have already had success using stem cells to grow organs. Using the stem cells from rats, which were injected into mice, they successfully developed a pancreas. The pancreas fully matured, which leaves researchers hopeful any organ in the body can be produced with this technique. Researchers plan to try this technique with pigs next due to prior success with pigs. They have already been able to produce human blood from stem cells that were injected into a pig’s fetus.

    With these results, lead researcher Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi, the director of the center for stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the University of Tokyo in Japan states, “The technique, called blastocyst complementation, provides us with a novel approach for organ supply. We have successfully tried it between mice and rats. We are now rather confident in generating functional human organs using this approach.” Professor Nakauchi goes on to say, “Our ultimate goal is to generate human organs from induced pluripotent stem cells.”

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    Overcoming Obstacles

    As beneficial as growing organs from stem cells would be, there are many obstacles that stand in the way of allowing this technique to become a common practice. The debate over the ethical use of stem cells is a large contributor to the hindering of the research. Many don’t support the use of human stem cells for scientific research, making it difficult to further progress in the area. Plus, testing this technique in humans will be next to impossible as a human would actually have to be willing, not to mention the consequences to the fetus once the grown organ is harvested. Animal rights also play a large role with the experimentation of the stem cells.

    Even with these obstacles, researchers are determined to one day eliminate the need for organ transplants. “Blastocyst complementation across species had never been tested before, but we have now shown that it can work,” says Professor Nakauchi. He explains, “For ethical reasons we cannot make an organ deficient human embryo and use it for blastocyst complementation. So to make use of this system to generate human organs, we must use this technique using blastocysts of livestock animals such as pigs instead.”

    As wonderful as it would be to have a steady supply of human organs on hand for those who need a transplant, this dream is going to have to wait a little longer as scientists continue to progress towards their goal.

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