According to Donate Life, another name is added to the national organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes and an average of 18 people die every day from the lack of available organs for transplant. Organ donors are constantly needed, and while 90% of Americans say they support donation, unfortunately only 30% know the essential steps to take to be a donor. However, scientists are working with biotechnology to create genetically engineered organs, reducing the number of donors that are so urgently needed on a daily basis.
The technology is not being developed in order to mass-produce organs for transplant, but rather to modify the current process to reduce the risk of transplant rejection by the human body. The human immune system is designed to identify and attack foreign bodies, creating a high risk of attack on an organ that is transplanted from another human being. Although doctors match organ donors and receivers to prevent this reaction, and medicines are used to suppress the recipient’s immune system from attacking, it is impossible to transplant an organ risk-free. To create genetically engineered organs, scientist will use a patient’s own cells to regenerate an entire organ. Using this process, titled ‘seed-and-scaffold’ a scientist will place a patient’s donated cells on a scaffold, or mold, of the necessary organ, and essentially grow a new organ. Using a patient’s own cells means growing organs on demand for transplant, while eliminating the risk of rejection.
While the scientific community cannot predict exactly when this technology will be advanced enough to grow major organs (hearts, livers, lungs, etc.), the technology is currently being used to produce hollow and flat structures. Dozens of people have had successful transplants using engineered windpipes, bladders, and blood vessels, and technique is also being utilized to create lab-grown skin for burn victims, or new cartilage for injured knees.
Despite the future opportunity held by these advances, there are ethical criticisms surrounding the idea of genetically engineered organs. In addition to the seed-and-scaffold approach previously explained, experts are also growing genetically engineered organs inside genetically engineered animals, predominantly pigs. The ethical debates rise from the genetic-alteration of pigs to make them more human-like, used to minimize the risk of human rejection in comparison to a ‘pure pig organ’. This approach is extremely expensive, timely, and hasn’t seen a lot of success with the harvested organs. The criticisms around the seed-and-scaffold method are much less, but the technology is not fully developed for use and scientists continue to experiment with the genetically altered animals.
Scientists are extremely optimistic about the future of lab-grown organs but continue to be realistic about the long road ahead – experts are already anticipating possible challenges and exploring solutions to these inevitable difficulties. All in all, the future holds infinite possibilities using this technology. Organs will be created on demand, the rate of rejection will rapidly decline, and patients will no longer be in danger of dying due to the lack of healthy organs available for transplant. The supply of organs has never been able to match the demand, but we are well on our way to closing that gap.