Facing the Organ Donor Crisis

AARP | Dr. Anthony Atala, AARP Bulletin
Dr. Anthony Atala, Photo:Steven Voss
Learn about bold new techniques in organ donation from a scientist

Why do we need to grow organs?

As people live longer, we're going to see increases in organ failure and an increase in the demand for organ donation. The transplant wait list for kidneys reflects that. We are pursuing several different strategies with kidneys — 3-D printing as well as using discarded human donor kidneys and kidneys from pigs as scaffolds to build new organs.

How do you grow a kidney — or any other organ?

If you take a very small piece of the patient's own tissue — less than half the size of a postage stamp — we can get those cells to grow outside of the body. About four weeks later, we can take those cells and apply them to three-dimensional molds in the shape of the organ.

All the body consists of are cells and the glue that holds them together, which is mostly collagen. So the key is to get the cells to grow on a mold created out of a man-made collagen equivalent that becomes a scaffold structure you can put back into the body. It's much like baking a layer cake. You coat the scaffold with the cells, one layer at a time. Then you put it in an ovenlike device that is the same temperature and oxygen level as the body.

What is experimental, and what has been implanted?

Our team is working on over 30 different organs and tissues, including tracheas, bone, cartilage, muscle and ears, as well as the major organs. We have been able to implant flat structures, such as skin; tubular structures, such as urethra channels; and hollow organs, such as the bladder and vagina. We have not been able to implant the complex, solid organs, such as the kidney, lung and heart. Those are considered the holy grail of regenerative medicine. Continue reading
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