Advancements in medical technologies and techniques mean that people suffering from chronic or potentially life-threatening conditions have a greater chance of survival and good quality of life. For many people, their only hope of a healthy and fulfilling life is to have an organ transplant. Unfortunately, organs are in short supply and not all of the millions of people in need of a transplant will have this opportunity. This is because a healthy person has to die and they or their family must give permission for the use of their organs in transplants. Scientists and doctors are trying to overcome this problem through the creation of artificial organs. While this may once have seemed little more than science-fiction, it is now becoming a reality. Here are just ten of the amazing and astonishing advancements in artificial organs that scientists have made in the last decade.
1. Bioartificial Kidneys
In one of the most recent advancements in artificial organs, scientists are getting ever closer to creating bioartificial kidneys, says Futurism (https://futurism.com/synthetic-organs-were-one-step-closer-to-having-bioartificial-kidneys). A team from the University of Utrecht led by Roos Masereeuw have been successful in engineering a key component of a functional bioartificial kidney. They have made a living membrane that consists of an artificial membrane surface with a kidney cell layer. They have proved that the layer of cells they have created is functional as it can transport molecules from one side to the next. The team has said that this is an important step toward developing a bioartificial kidney as the methods and strategies they have used will become important to future developments of organs, not just kidneys. This is not the only team working towards the development of artificial kidneys. Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of California at San Francisco are working collaboratively on the development of artificial kidneys thanks to a $6 million grant awarded to them by the National Institutes of Health, says Healio. However, this team is focusing on producing an artificial kidney that mimics the function of a human kidney and they have already created a working prototype.
2. Skin Bioprinting
People often forget that the skin is an organ, but it is actually the largest organ in the body and it has many functions. When people have suffered injuries, trauma, or medical problems relating to the skin, they may need to replace an area of their skin. Traditionally, this was done through skin grafts, which involves removing a piece of healthy skin tissue from one part of the body and using it to repair an unhealthy or damaged area of skin. However, doctors are now looking at other methods of replacing skin that does not involve removing a patient’s own healthy tissues. According to Univadis, an article published in ‘Trends in Bioprinting’ has highlighted recent studies that have made developments in creating artificial skin by combining biological materials with computational designs to bio-print fully functional skin constructs. This means that people who suffer significant burns or other severe skin traumas will retain their own skin and use artificial skin in the future. Three of the potential benefits of using this technique are less pain and suffering for the patient, reduced scarring as there is no need for skin grafts, and a faster recovery period.
3. Soft Artificial Heart
Creating hearts and components of hearts have been the focus of many teams of researchers for decades. While scientists have previously been able to successfully create components such as vessels and valves, there have been greater obstacles in producing an artificial heart that looks and feels realistic. Many artificial heart projects have produced hearts that are very synthetic, and do not have the soft texture of the heart. According to Univadis, scientists have finally achieved this and created a soft total artificial heart that mimics a natural heart as closely s possible. The artificial heart is made from silicone elastometers and using a technique involving 3D printing and lost-wax casting. It is pneumatically driven and weighs 390 grams.
3D printing is something that is used in many industries, and it is increasingly being used as a resource for medical advancements. One way in which it has successfully been used in medicine is in the creation of body parts. The breakthrough was first made in 2015 by Russian scientists who produced a thyroid gland, says Futurism. They had chosen this body part because of its simplicity and also because thyroid cancer is the 16th most common form of cancer, so there is a need in this area. Following the success of creating a thyroid gland using 3D printing, scientists are continuing to work on using 3D printing to create organs for use in transplant procedures. This will make a significant difference by reducing the number of organ donations needed from human organ donors.
5. Artificially Grown Organs
The idea of growing an organ in a laboratory setting may seem completely unbelievable. However, that is exactly what scientists are now able to achieve, says an article in Medium. So far, scientists have been able to grow livers, lungs, hearts, urethras, and windpipes. There are still many obstacles that scientists must overcome before it is possible to use these artificially grown organs in hospitals, but they have already made great strides toward making this a realistic possibility. Unlike the organs that are built using 3D bio-engineered scaffolds, these laboratory-grown artificial organs are created using lab-cultured cells. They are designed in the laboratory and are started from pluripotent stem cells. Scientists first began to make progress in the field of artificially grown organs back in 2012. It was the scientists From Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea that the first to make a groundbreaking achievement. They successfully grew a windpipe from stem cells and transplanted it into a two-year-old girl.
6. Bioengineered Livers
Medium also reports that scientists have successfully created bioengineered livers. As one of the largest organs, it has also been one of the most difficult for scientists to recreate. The bioengineers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center were some of the first scientists to overcome these challenges in 2010. Using decellularized animal livers as a scaffold, they were able to grow miniature livers in the laboratory by seeding them with human cells. The bioengineered livers each measure approximately one inch in length and weighed just five grams. Scientists are now working toward creating livers that are large enough to function properly within the human body. This means they will need to bioengineer livers that weigh around half a kilogram. Although there is still some way to go before scientists can achieve this, they are making good progress.
Although the focus for medical scientists is creating organs for humans, animals have played a huge role in the research. Xenotransplantation is the term used to describe transplants that involve the use of whole or partial animal organs. According to The Actuary, pigs are one of the animals that have been used for research purposes. This is because the size and shape of a pig’s internal organs are closer to those of humans compared to most other animals. It is already common practice to use heart valves from a pig, called porcine heart valves, into the hearts of humans who are suffering from a heart condition that affects the valves. Scientists chemically strip the pig cells from the heart valve before implanting the animal body part into a human’s body. The valve then has human cells grow around it after the implantation. One of the biggest problems with implanting pig organs is the human body rejecting animal tissue. Another is animal viruses passing to humans. Now, scientists believe they have found a way to overcome these problems. They are using gene editing technology to grow artificial human organs in pigs and other animals.
8. Artificial Pancreas
Diabetes is a life-changing and potentially life-threatening condition that affects millions of people across the globe. Therefore, it is one area of medicine that has received a lot of attention from scientists. The organ at the center of research into diabetes is the pancreas, as this is the organ that produces insulin and regulates insulin levels. One area of research on which scientists have focused on in recent years is the development of an artificial pancreas. It is intended that this artificial organ will become a fully automated insulin delivery system, says Labiotech. Those involved in this research believe that it is possible for them to have this artificial organ available before 2030. Although they have made great progress and have built prototypes, they still have several challenges to address before it is available for use in humans. One of these challenges is that the artificial pancreas can currently only monitor insulin levels when someone has not eaten and they are not exercising. As soon as this device is available, it will change the lives of those who suffer from type 1 diabetes.
9. Artificial Lungs
Although a human can survive one lung, they cannot survive with no lungs. Transplanting lungs is one of the most difficult transplant procedures, and post-transplant complications are high. Often, surgeons decide to conduct a heart and lung transplant to reduce these complications, but this is extremely high-risk surgery. Now, those who may need a lung transplant in the future have some hope, says the Alliance of Advanced BioMedical Engineering. In an article published in September 2018, they say that Joan Nichols, the director of the Galveston National Laboratory at the University of Texas, has devoted the last 15 years developing prototypes of artificial lungs, along with a team of scientists. Nichols and her team have now successfully developed bioengineered lungs and have transplanted them into adult pigs. Following the procedure, the pigs showed no signs of rejecting the artificial organs. This is a significant achievement that required the researchers changing their approach on many occasions as developing artificial lungs was much harder than they ever imagined.
10. Artificial Intestine
According to Hopkins Medicine, the creation of the first artificial intestine was spurred by a doctor’s fateful encounter with a premature baby. David Hackam, the pediatric surgeon-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, formerly worked at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. A baby for whom he was caring developed necrotizing enterocolitis, which causes the death of intestinal tissue. The only option is to surgically remove the parts of the intestine that are dying. After the baby died, Hackam decided to focus on finding a way of creating an artificial intestine to save babies suffering from this horrific condition Working alongside John March, a biomedical engineer, he was able to create an artificial gut by growing gut stem cells on a three dimensional scaffold that was made from biodegradable synthetic materials. The results were remarkably like a natural intestine. The artificial intestine has been successfully transplanted into dogs and mice, and this allowed the researchers to learn more about how well the artificial intestine absorbed nutrients. This is ongoing research and human trials have not yet been completed. Once it has been completed, there is hope for the parents of many premature babies who suffer from this condition and it can potentially significantly reduce neonatal death rates. Although this artificial intestine was originally designed for children, it is possible for scientists to also apply the same methods to creating artificial intestines for adults. Similarly, although the inspiration was necrotizing enterocolitis, artificial intestines can potentially be used for any medical issue that means a person will lose a section of their intestine.
Written by Liz Flynn
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