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3D printing has generated lots of press recently, not just because we can make all kinds of awesome stuff, like motorcycles and tiny replicas of oneself, but also for printing body parts. Researchers have made 3D-printed skin and will at some point start 3D-printing organs. In the meantime, there may be another way to produce organs for the many people languishing on endless transplant lists: growing them in a lab.
Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch used the lungs of two kids who had died in traumatic accidents, which rendered their lungs unusable for transplants, despite their being some healthy tissue left. In other words, it was the perfect opportunity for the researchers to see what they could do. They took one set and peeled away the tissue, all the way down to the basic skeleton of elastin and collagen. They then took living cells from the second and put them on what was left of the first. Then they put the lung in something like a Petri dish filled with a nutrient-rich liquid that looks kind of like Kool-Aid. And voila! A month later, they had a lung. hey replicated their experiment by producing two more lungs.
If you’ve ever read about lab-grown meat, you’ve probably found yourself thinking that it can’t possibly taste as good as the real thing, and you’ve probably wondered if it’s even safe. That’s obviously a concern for the researchers here, but they’re off to a good start. The engineered lungs look organic, though they are slightly pinker in color, softer to the touch, and not as dense. What do those differences mean, exactly? I’m not sure I’d be super confident in a lung that didn’t seem as solid as an organic one.
That’s one of the big questions the researchers hope to answer in the next decade or so. The first guinea pigs will be…well, pigs. While some scientists turn to mice for their experiments, researchers working with organs and transplants have been using swine since the first pig insulin injections in the 1930s. In fact, many believe that pigs could be a great source of replacement organs for people, but xeno-transplantation is another post for another time. For now, the pigs will test these lab-grown organs to see whether they really are sufficient replacements for the real thing.
This isn’t the first time doctors have grown human body parts in a lab, there have been seven successful synthetic trachea transplants since 2011. I see this as a great potential plotline for a cheesy horror movie.