Can we grow stem cells into transplantable organs?
Currently in the UK 6684 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant. Unfortunately, many die waiting for their transplant. The issue of limited organs is not just found in the UK but in many countries around the world. Most organ donations are of the kidney, liver and heart.
Stem cells are routinely grown in labs across the globe to help scientists study biological processes and diseases. Stem cells can turn into any type of ‘specialised’ cell, so is it possible to harness this ability to grow entire human organs from scratch? Growing whole organs in a lab would mean shorter wait times for transplant patients, potentially saving their lives. In order to find out if this is possible, we asked 5 experts in stem cells, oncology and neuroscience, ‘Can stem cells be grown into organs in the lab that we can transplant into humans?’, here is what they said…
Can we grow stem cells into transplantable organs?
3 out of 5 experts say ‘likely’
Has anyone grown a fully functioning organ in the lab?
Dr Philippa Harding, an expert in stem cells and developmental biology from King’s College London in the UK says “at the moment, no organ model has been developed which is close enough to the human equivalent for transplant of an entire organ.”
Dr Vik Reebye, an expert in oncology from Imperial College London in the UK agrees, saying “This is still in the realms of science fiction.”
What is the closest we have got to a lab-grown organ?
Dr Emily Read, an expert in stem cells and immunology from King’s College London in the UK says “Currently, stem cells can be grown in the lab to form model organ systems that are often referred to as organoids. Organoids are mostly 3 dimensional, microscopic and are made up of several different types of cell”.
She explains that “Although organoids are more similar to an organ than other model systems (like cell lines, which are often 2 dimensional and only consist of one cell type), there are some key differences. Organs are far more complex, being made up of lots of different types of cells (e.g. supporting structural cells, functional cells, immune cells). They are vascularised, innervated, much larger than organoid models and able to perform complex functions.”
Why is it difficult to grow a whole organ?
Dr Harding says “blood vessels (vasculature) are particularly difficult for scientists to replicate in the lab.”
Dr Szu-Hsien Sam Wu, an expert in stem cells from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Austria says “some points that need to be considered are viability, functionality and costs. It is also extremely difficult to build something identical to what Nature has built - in terms of patterning in micro-scale and overall size (now it is not yet possible technically!)”
Will we be able to grow organs in the future?
Not all experts were in agreement as to whether it would be possible to grow a full-sized, fully-functioning organ in the future.
Dr Read says “Many researchers are trying to make organoid cultures more complex and representative of actual organs. In the future, it is possible that entire organs could be grown in the lab from stem cells, however there is further work to be done before this is a reality.”
Dr Reebye is less hopeful, he says “My personal opinion is that these cells are at the moment synonymous to Lego pieces. We might be able to use these components to build what might appear as a human heart or a human ear on the outside, but underneath it will most likely be a plastic scaffold hold things together to just look good.”
Dr Reebye adds that it may not be necessary to generate a whole organ, for some diseases growing just a part of an organ or tissue could still be beneficial. He says “The more realistic answer for this question is aside from bone marrow transplants, lab grown stem cells are more likely to be used to assist with skin grafts or blood cancers rather than replace an entire organ”
Dr Barney Bryson, an expert in neuroscience from University College London in the UK, highlights that not all organs are the same, he says “It is likely that this will be possible in the medium-term future but this will very much depend on the type of organ. For relatively simple organs, consisting largely of a single cell type (such as hepatocytes that make up the liver), this should be achievable. For the human nervous system, which constitutes by far the most complex tissue/organ, it may never be practical or feasible to use lab grown organs for replacement therapies but that's not to say that stem cell therapies will not work in diseases of the nervous system - just not as (partial) organ transplants”
We can’t currently grow a whole organ in the lab, but we are starting to grow mini-organs and tissue pieces – these could actually be part of life-saving therapies themselves.
May the facts be with you!
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