Where Are the Lab-Grown Replacement Organs?
The headline blared from newspapers all the way back in 2006: "First Lab-Grown Organs Implanted in Humans!" A team from Wake Forest University had biopsied cells from the bladders of patients with spina bifida and used them to create brand new full-size bladders, which they then implanted. Although the bladders had to be emptied via catheter, they were still functioning a few years after implantation, and the public grew confident that doctors had climbed an intermediary step on the way to the medicine of science fiction. Ten years later, though, more than 20 people a day are still dying while waiting for an organ transplant, which leads to a simple question: Where are our fake organs?
"We can make small organs and tissues but we can't make larger ones."
Not coming anytime soon, unfortunately. The company that was created to transition Wake Forest's bladders to the market failed. And while there are a few simple bioengineered skins and cartilages already on the market, they are hardly identical to the real thing. Something like a liver could take another 20 to 25 years, says Shay Soker, professor at Wake Forest's Institute for Regenerative Medicine. "The first barrier is the technology: We can make small organs and tissues but we can't make larger ones," he says. "Also there are several cell types or functions that you can reliably make from stem cells, but not all of them, so the technology of stem cells has to catch up with what the body can do." Finally, he says, you have support the new organ inside the body, providing it with a circulatory and nervous system and integrating it with the immune system.
While these are all challenging problems, circulation appears to be the most intractable. "Tissue's not able to survive if the cells don't have oxygen, and the bigger it gets, the more complex vasculature you need to keep that alive," says Chiara Ghezzi, research professor in the Tufts University Department of Biomedical Engineering. "Vasculature is highly organized in the body. It has a hierarchical structure, with different branches that have different roles depending on where they are." So far, she says, researchers have had trouble scaling up from capillaries to larger vessels that could be grafted onto blood vessels in a patient's body.
"The FDA is still getting its hands and minds around the field of tissue engineering."
Last, but hardly least, is the question of FDA approval. Lab-grown organs are neither drugs nor medical devices, and the agency is not set up to quickly or easily approve new technologies that don't fit into current categories. "The FDA is still getting its hands and minds around the field of tissue engineering," says Soker. "They were not used to that… so it requires the regulatory and financial federal agencies to really help and support these initiatives."
A pencil eraser-size model of the human brain is now being used for drug development and research.
If all of this sounds discouraging, it's worth mentioning some of the incredible progress the field has made since the first strides toward lab-grown organs began nearly 30 years ago: Though full-size replacement organs are still decades away, many labs have diverted their resources into what they consider an intermediate step, developing miniature organs and systems that can be used for drug development and research. This platform will yield more relevant results (Imagine! Testing cardiovascular drugs on an actual human heart!) and require the deaths of far fewer animals. And it's already here: Two years ago, scientists at Ohio State University developed a pencil eraser-size model of the human brain they intend to use for this exact purpose.
Perhaps the most exciting line of research these days is one that at first doesn't seem to have anything to do with bioengineered organs at all. Along with his colleagues, Chandan Sen, Director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine and Cell-based Therapies at Ohio State University, has developed a nanoscale chip that can turn any cell in the body into any other kind of cell—reverting fully differentiated adult cells into, essentially, stem cells, which can then grow into any tissue you want. Sen has used his chip to reprogram skin cells in the bodies of mice into neurons to help them recover from strokes, and blood vessels to save severe leg injuries. "There's this concept of a bioreactor, where you convince an organ to grow outside the body. They're getting more and more sophisticated over time. But to my mind it will never match the sophistication or complexity of the human body," Sen says. "I believe that in order to have an organ that behaves the way you want it to in the live body, you must use the body itself as a bioreactor, not a bunch of electronic gadgetry." There you have it, the next step in artificial organ manufacture is as crazy as it is intuitive: Grow it back where it was in the first place.
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio improves about 10 minutes into the episode. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/