By Dr. Stephen Pastan
Some tiny first steps have been taken in the futuristic drive to create organs “in a test tube”. Scientists in San Diego have use 3D printing techniques to create small conglomerates of cells that form structures resembling liver tissue, and perform some of the biologic functions of livers. These preliminary results were presented at the Experimental Biology meetings this year in Boston.
There have also been news reports that scientists in China have used similar techniques to print a rudimentary kidney, but little is known about the function of these tissue-like conglomerations, and published details are still to come. (See http://gizmodo.com/scientists-can-now-3d-print-transplantable-living-kidn-1120783047.) In a similar vein, scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have created a human “lung on a chip”. These little devices mimic many behaviors of the lung including breathing (see the video here). A recent report by the Harvard researchers published in Science Translational Medicine last year describes using the chip to study toxin-induced pulmonary edema (leaky lungs which fill up with fluid).
Indeed it is likely that the future practical uses of these tiny liver-, kidney- and lung-mimicking collections of cells is to study the effects of damaging substances, such as chemicals, drugs, toxins and radiation. Tests run on artificially generated organs may be more efficient than those employing animals or human subjects. Whether these technologies could ever create an organ that can be used to replace a human liver, kidney or lung remains a distant future wish; in my opinion that is likely to be decades away, even if “printing organs” proves to be a viable technology. Stay tuned.
Dr. Stephen Pastan is a member of the National Kidney Foundation’s Board of Directors. He is also Medical Director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant program at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.