Can organs be grown outside of humans?

thymus image

Organ transplant alternatives could be available in the future

Scottish researchers have grown a whole, functional organ from scratch inside of an animal for the very first time.

Genetically reprogrammed cells formed into a thymus – a critical part of the immune system – once transplanted into mice with other support role cells. The thymus is found near the heart and produces a component of the immune system, called T-cells, which fight infection.

This discovery could be innovative for organ transplants, with patients who need a bone marrow transplant or children who are born without a functioning thymus potentially benefiting. Ways of boosting the thymus could also help elderly people, as the organ shrinks with age and leads to a weaker immune system. Although the possible plus points are huge, certain obstacles need to be eliminated before the methodology is sampled in hospitals. For example, the current technique uses embryos, which means the developing thymus would not be a tissue match for the patient. Researchers also need to be sure that the transplant cells do not pose a cancer risk by growing uncontrollably.

New organs

Prof Clare Blackburn, part of the research team, told BBC News “This was a complete surprise to us, that we were really being able to generate a fully functional and fully organised organ starting with reprogrammed cells in really a very straightforward way. This is a very exciting advance and it’s also very tantalising in terms of the wider field of regenerative medicine.”

Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, from the National Institute for Medical Research, said “This appears to be an excellent study. This is an important achievement both for demonstrating how to make an organ, albeit a relatively simple one, and because of the critical role of the thymus in developing a proper functioning immune system. However… the methods are unlikely to be easy to translate to human patients.”