Scientists Have Gotten Closer Than Ever To Growing Human Hearts

Lives will be saved.

Imagine how different the world would be if nobody died while waiting for a donated organ. Instead of waiting for months, imagine if a patient's own cells could be used to create a new organ in a matter of weeks, with no chance of rejection. It sounds like science fiction, but researchers took a large step toward making it a reality by using stem cells to create a full-grown, functional human heart.

This achievement, which was detailed in the journal Circulation Outreach, could one day bring hope to the 45,000 people around the world who die every year because they aren't able to receive a heart transplant due to an inability to find a match. 

The technique does require a donor heart, but the key difference is that just about any heart will do. To make this work, the donated heart is washed with a special detergent that strips away all of the cells in the organ, along with everything that might make the recipient's body reject it. What's left is a simple protein structure that acts like a scaffolding for the stem cells as they grow into the new heart. 

It takes two weeks to grow the heart inside an incubator, after which an electric shock is applied to get the organ pumping on its own.

Surgeons performing a heart transplant
Surgeons performing a heart transplant Shutterstock

The beauty of this technique is that it isn't limited to hearts. Previous studies have shown similar success with kidneystracheae, and liver tissue, but this is the first time it's been used to create a full-size human heart. 

Still, scientists face a number of challenges before these organs are suitable for transplantation. Each of the 73 hearts used in this study was grown using about 500 million stem cells, but in order to be used inside of a person, they will need tens of billions of stem cells each. Unfortunately, the availability of stem cells is limited due in large part to government regulation. Researchers are thus forced to make their own by turning skin cells into stem cells, which is far from efficient.

It will likely be several years before this technique is used in actual transplants, so the researchers are working on using this technique to make patches of tissue for repairing damaged hearts.

In the meantime, every one of us can help out by signing up to be an organ donor.

Cover image: Bernhard Jank, MD, Ott Lab, Center for Regenerative Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital

(H/T: Popular Science)