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.
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.