Farming Hearts, Livers and Pancreases?

What is on the horizon in organ transplants? Will hearts, livers, pancreases and kidneys be grown in a laboratory? Not in the near future, but doctors at Harvard have used cells from animal fetuses to produce new bladders and windpipes for sheep.

What is more feasible is the possibility of partial organs doing some of the essential functions of entire organs, says P. R. Rajagopalam, MD, director of transplantation at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

“That is very promising, but to grow an entire heart or liver, that’s somewhat distant,” Rajagopalam says. What he finds more encouraging is a possible interim step – using clusters of cells from organs instead of whole organs.

If there is liver failure, a cluster of liver cells could be grown outside the body or even implanted in the body to take over some of those organ’s functions and used as a substitute for a whole liver.

In the same manner, when diabetes results from an improperly working pancreas, cells from the pancreas could produce insulin to keep diabetes in check.

The production of such cluster cells is “very near, within a few years, but it’s a question of quantity,” Rajagopalam says.

Organ production is not considered as ethically controversial as cloning, but there could be controversy over using fetal tissue cells for research.

Rajagopalam made his predictions about using cluster cells instead of entire organs a few days after Harvard University researchers revealed that they had grown animal tissue from a variety of organs, including the heart, kidneys and bladder.

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