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.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby