The technology is no doubt revolutionary, as the tissue can be used to test new pharmaceutical drugs more effectively. The tissue reacts to drugs just like it would in a real person. Meaning that pharmaceutical companies can see how the drug would interact with our bodies, giving a more accurate idea of side effects than animal testing would alone.
The next step for Organovo is to build fully useable organs from scratch, as well. That is, unless these researchers in Japan get there first.
The “Liver Bud”
These researchers at Yokohama City University were able to build a liver, out of non-liver cells.
It’s made possible by combining donor skin cells with induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPS cells). Essentially, iPS cells are just normal cells that have been given a new “mission.” That is, they can grow into any type of cell – like skin, lung, muscle, bone and, yes, liver.
What’s interesting is that the discovery happened by chance…
As Takanori Takebe, one of the researchers at the University, says, “We mixed and graded the cells onto the culture dish and they moved to form a cluster. It was a surprising outcome from what was, to be honest, an accident.”
Later analysis shows that these cells – which weren’t liver cells to begin with – now carry a special biochemical marker that only comes from maturing liver cells. In other words, the cells were successfully “reprogrammed.”
It’s at this crucial point that the scientists introduced two other types of cells to help the liver perform its task as an organ.
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And two days later… they had a working liver. Well, to be fair, it’s not a fully functional organ.
“It’s not yet a perfect liver,” Takebe says. “Improvements need to be made, such as the reconstruction of a bile duct.”
So it’s not ready to transplant into anyone just yet. In fact, it’s now inside the skull of a mouse. That’s because the mass of cells needs a steady stream of blood to grow (it’s currently about five millimeters long). And this specific mouse was chosen because it suffers from a severe immune disorder that wouldn’t attack (or “reject”) this foreign matter.
But it goes without saying that this tiny liver has massive implications down the road.
I mean, forget organ transplant waiting lists. Once technology like this goes mainstream, we’re approaching a future where we can go to a store and purchase a pair of lungs as easily as a pair of sneakers.
And why wait for someone to donate an organ when you can get brand-new ones instead? Organ shortages and waiting lists would disappear.
Of course, the discovery also solves one important issue facing organ transplant patients today: Rejection.
Even a successful organ donation carries risks, like the patient’s body attacking the new organ like a virus. Yes, doctors administer a regimen of immune system-suppressing drugs to keep this from happening. But unfortunately, this opens the door for other illnesses while the drugs weaken your immune system.
But since this new technology would allow doctors to grow organs using your own cells, your immune system would recognize the new addition immediately, eliminating the need for immune system suppressants.
Now, we may not have discovered the Fountain of Youth yet.
But with research like this and companies like Organovo continuing to develop innovative new ways to build tissue and organs from scratch, the dream of living to a ripe old age without sickness or pain looks more like a reality.