Jeremy Laurance: Growing organs from scratch isn't science fiction, but it's a long way off


The idea of growing organs from scratch has been canvassed for more than a decade, since embryonic stem cells were discovered in the late nineties.

Replacing diseased, damaged or worn out body parts with fresh grown replacements as we age would offer the perfect solution to the global organ donor shortage.

Is it science fiction? No - but neither is it going to happen tomorrow. Professor Paolo Macchiarini is better placed than most to know what is possible. He said yesterday it would be at least a decade before organs such as the liver and lungs could be grown in the laboratory and transplanted into humans.

But it is his work, as much as anybody?s, that has brought the prospect closer. As Professor Dame Julia Polak of Imperial College, London and Dusko Ilic of Kings College say in a commentary in The Lancet, the promise of an off-the-shelf scaffold repopulated with the patient?s own stem cells from which a new organ could be grown ?seems much closer than one could have hoped for even a few years ago?.

So there is real progress - but still a long way to go. The first stage will be to grow parts of organs which can be used to patch existing ones, replacing diseased or damaged tissue with fresh grown cells, as has already been achieved with the bladder.

When it comes to whole organs, some are simpler to grow than others. The liver is self generating and regrows like the tail of a lizard. The heart is more complex - the key there is to get it all to beat together in synchrony. That may prove a challenge too far.

Growing body parts  from scratch in clinically useful numbers still lies in the future. But the donor shortage crisis is with us now. Other solutions, involving boosting the supply of donors, will have to be found.

There are many possibilities - some technical involving changes to the way organs are collected and stored to improve transplant success rates, and some social and political involving changes to the way the consent of donors is sought. All will be necessary - and we will still struggle to meet the demand.