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“Like Making a Cake” – Scientists Grow Human Body Parts in Labs

It may sound like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie, but scientists are currently growing human body parts in labs throughout the world, including the United States.

A showcase took place in a London hospital this week featuring the custom-made organs, where scientists are producing noses, ears and blood vessels utilizing stem cells.


Dr Michelle Griffin poses with a synthetic polymer ear
Photo Courtesy of AP/Matt Dunham

So far only a handful of patients have received the British lab-made organs, which include tear ducts, blood vessels and windpipes. However, researchers are hopeful that in the very near future, they will be transplanting more types of body parts such as coronary arteries and ears, into patients.

“It’s like making a cake,” said Alexander Seifalian at University College London, the scientist leading the effort. “We just use a different kind of oven.”

During the lab visit, Seifalian proudly displayed his sophisticated machine used to make molds from a polymer material for assorted organs.

Last year after a British man lost his nose to cancer, Seifalian and his team were able to replicate one for him. Scientists used a technique of adding a salt and sugar solution to the mold of the nose to imitate the sponge-like texture of the authentic version. After which, they took stem cells retrieved from the patient’s fat and grew it in the lab for two weeks before using it to cover the nose scaffold. The team then implanted the nose into the man’s forearm so that skin would grow to cover it.

Seiflian said he and his team are currently waiting to get the green light from regulatory authorities before transferring the nose onto the patient’s face, but he had no idea when this would occur.

The special polymer material Seifalian utilizes for his organ scaffold has been patented. He is currently seeking to patent their blood vessels, tear ducts and windpipes while he continues  constructing other organs such as coronary arteries and ears. It won’t be long before trials begin testing out lab-made ears for people born without them. Infact, dates are already in place for exploration to start in India and London.

“Ears are harder to make than noses because you have to get all the contours right and the skin is pulled tight so you see its entire structure,” said Dr. Michelle Griffin, a plastic surgeon who has constructed dozens of ears and noses in Seifalian’s lab.

“At the moment, children who need new ears have to go through a really invasive procedure involving taking cartilage from their ribs,” Griffin said. She explained that retrieving fat cells from patients’ abdomens to add to a lab-made ear scaffold is much easier than undergoing numerous procedures that are necessary to carve an ear from ribs. Griffin added that plans are in the works to ultimately produce an entirely synthetic face, however, they must first prove that their polymer scaffolds are sustainable and won’t accidentally erupt out of the skin.

“Scientists have to get things like noses and ears right before we can move onto something like a kidney, lungs or a liver, which is much more complicated,” said Eileen Gentleman, a stem cell expert at King’s College London, who is not connected to Seigalian’s research.

“Where Seifalian has led is in showing us maybe we don’t need to have the absolutely perfect tissue for a (lab-made) organ to work,” she said. “What he has created is the correct structure and the fact that it’s good enough for his patients to have a functional (windpipe), tear duct, etc. is pretty amazing.”

It has been predicted by many scientists that certain lab-made organs will no longer be experimental.

“I’m convinced engineered organs are going to be on the market soon,” said Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, a professor of transplantation biology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She has already successfully transferred lab-made blood vessels into a handful of patients, but foresees that by 2016, they will be more widely offered pending regulatory approval.  She does recognize that doctors will have to closely monitor patients for any long-term side effects, which includes the possibility of a high cancer risk.

Seifalian reported that approximately $16 million has gone into his research thus far since 2005, but he is hopeful that lab-made organs will one day be attainable for a few hundred dollars.

“If people are not that fussy, we could manufacture different sizes of noses so the surgeon could choose a size and tailor it for patients before implanting it,” he said. “People think your nose is very individual and personal but this is something that we could mass produce like in a factory one day.”

“Like Making a Cake” – Scientists Grow Human Body Parts in Labs


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