Giving Life to Synthetic Organs

features-giving-life-to-synthetic-organsThree short years ago, Andemariam Beyene was studying geology for his PhD in Iceland when his physicians found out he had a golfball sized tumor growing in his trachea (windpipe) which blocked his breathing. After going through aggressive rounds of surgery and radiation therapy, Beyene’s health continued to deteriorate, according to The New York Times, as the tumor still persisted.

It seemed as though all hope had been lost, for without a transplant, Beyene would almost certainly have died. Beyene soon thereafter enrolled in a revolutionary operation. Tissue engineers from London created an artificial windpipe of a special plastic and coated it with somatic stem cells from Beyene. According to BBC, an Italian physician, Paolo Macchiarini, at the Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden, led the pioneering surgery.

The technique is special in the regard that it does not require a donor. It uses the patient’s own somatic stem cells to vascularize and coat the artificial organ with “cells, blood vessels, and nerves to become a living functional part of the human body,” said Henry Fountain of The New York Times.

Stem cells, which come in two types, have the ability to differentiate into specialized cells to do specific tasks– much like that of a college student picking a major for a specific trade. The first type, embryonic stem cells, can basically differentiate into anything– cells that line the GI tract, muscle cells, and kidney cells among a myriad of other options.

The ethical concerns emergent from the use of embryonic stem cells, which are extracted from a fertilized embryo that may have the potential to develop into a fetus, do not get raised with therapy based off of somatic stem cells because the latter type can be isolated from human bone marrow without life-threatening harm to the individual.

Traditionally, it has been more difficult to use the latter in stem cell therapies because somatic stem cells are not able to differentiate to anywhere near the same caliber of different cells as the former. The primary role of adult stem cells, according to the National Institutes of Health, is to “maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.”

Shivam Patel, third year biology major at the University, says that “scientific discoveries are igniting the core of medical technology. Creating the structure of an organ is impressive, but accounting for how it functions with the rest of the body is even more impressive. It never ceases to amaze me how much science can do.”

“But debating the discovery,” said Patel, “it is quite difficult to see all the complications arising from the organ associating with other cells by hormones and nerve endings. Will [synthetic organs] function properly with respect to the long-term goal is the big question.”

The key to synthesizing the artificial trachea was to create an almost exact replica. A host of engineers and scientists at University College London were able to “craft a perfect copy of Beyene’s trachea and two main bronchi out of glass,” according to BBC.

Dr. Azzam Elayan, chemistry professor at the University, said “The successful construction of a windpipe, using a synthetic polymer scaffold and the patient’s own stem cells, and the successful implant operation which followed were nothing short of remarkable! This is particularly true considering the fact that the effort required expertise in various areas of inquiry, including polymer chemistry and tissue engineering.”

This synthetic windpipe was then flown over to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm where somatic stem cells taken from Beyene’s bone marrow were used to create an extracellular matrix on the plastic windpipe which was transplanted into Beyene.

Somatic stem cells taken from his bone marrow, and cells taken from the mucus lining of his nose were implanted during the operation. These cells were able to divide and grow and turn the inert windpipe scaffold into an organ indistinguishable from a normal healthy one, according to BBC.

The surgery marks a groundbreaking success in the use of somatic stem cell therapy. Something that was once marked as too difficult to use is now being utilized to save lives.

“This is a loud testament to the innovative power of curiosity and experimentation and to the ability of the human body to regenerate despite, at times, very modest odds,” said Elayan.

“Thanks to nanotechnology, this new branch of regenerative medicine, we are now able to produce a custom-made windpipe within two days or one week,” said Macchiarini in an interview with BBC. “This is a synthetic windpipe. The beauty of this is you can have it immediately. There is no delay. This technique does not rely on a human donation.”

Beyene looks forward to finishing his studies and visiting his family back in Eritrea.

“This revolutionary repairing of damaged organs has provided not only a platform for future regeneration research but also hope for those with infected organs at the present,” said Momna Ayub, freshman chemistry major.

“This research has been a worldwide effort and such a landmark discovery reminds us that we must always continue to strive for progress.”

IMAGE TAKEN from www.nationalgeographic.com