Could we soon grow human organs in a lab?

Monday, December 2, 2019


The next decade will see regenerative medicine take strides towards creating human organs in the laboratory – making organ transplants, waiting lists, and anti-rejection drugs things of the past.


In the Global Innovation Index 2019Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, describes the innovations that could make this happen by 2030.


This article is part of a series about the power of innovation to solve social and economic challenges. Stories and statistics are drawn from the Global Innovation Index 2019.


Regenerative medicine – which mimics and improves the natural functions of our internal organs – is progressing towards its ultimate goal of building entire organs, using stem cell technology.


One of regenerative medicine’s most important and socially transformative applications will be in the treatment of diabetes, a chronic disease in which the pancreas fails to regulate blood sugar levels.


Diabetes is on the rise worldwide, affecting over 422 million people. Many sufferers are awaiting the introduction of a safe and effective bioartificial pancreas, which would continuously track blood glucose levels to deliver precise doses of insulin.


Where we’re at now


Already approved are “closed loop” systems. These use wireless technology to connect a monitor measuring glucose levels in a person’s body, to a small pump delivering an appropriate dose of insulin subcutaneously. This real-time monitoring and dose adjustment should significantly improve the management of diabetes, preventing vision loss, heart disease and amputations.


The ultimate goal


Researchers are working towards the creation of a completely biological replacement pancreas. To achieve this, they will use recent bioengineering advances that allow them to reprogram patients’ own cells.


The amazing innovation that makes this possible is ‘induced pluripotent stem cell’ (iPS) technology. Derived from fully mature human skin or blood cells, iPS cells can be encouraged to differentiate into a variety of different tissues. These include pancreatic islet cells, whose job is to respond to blood glucose and make insulin.


Verging on the breakthrough


In fact, researchers recently used iPS cells, along with other regenerative medicine techniques, to produce human pancreatic ‘islets’. These islets not only secrete insulin, but also develop their own circulatory system. When transplanted into a mouse model of type 1 diabetes, the bioengineered islets successfully treated the animals’ diabetes.


Not only could iPS cells help people with diabetes, they may also enable advances in many other areas of regenerative medicine, rebuilding damaged hearts, kidneys, and livers. This will revolutionize the way we treat organ failure, saving and improving millions of lives and consigning organ transplant technology to the past.


The Global Innovation Index 2019 is the result of a collaboration between Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as co-publishers, and their Knowledge Partners, Confederation of Indian Industry, Dassault Systèmes, SEBRAE, Brazilian Micro and Small Industry Support Services, and Brazilian Confederation of Industry.


Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) licence. That means you can copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format for any purpose, even commercially, but you cannot change it in any way.


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