Mini-bioreactor may help make organs

March 30, 2009 6:50:48 PM PDT
Ever since the birth of stem cell research there has been a distant promise that someday we might be able to grow replacement organs for humans. While that dream may be far in the future, if it is possible at all, researchers at Stanford believe they have cleared a key hurdle.

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A new device they have created looks like someone's tabletop science project. But, it is actually a scaled-down version of a bioreactor, commonly used to keep donor organs alive before transplant surgery.

Researchers at Stanford believe it could provide the key to creating organs as well.

"So, we're interested in trying to make organs completely from scratch," said Stanford lab director Dr. Geoffrey Gurtner.

Gurtner says the main stumbling block to tissue engineering has been finding a way to keep blood vessels functioning outside the body.

After removing micro-thin tissue samples from mice, known as vascular beds, his team used the bioreactor to feed in oxygenated growth factors, along with something extra.

"We can use this apparatus to then inject stem cells," explained senior scientist Edwin Chang.

The result is a kind of living scaffold which gives the stem cells time to morph into large masses of organ cells. The cells could potentially grow into functioning organ tissue.

"So, our approach is really to hijack expendable vascular beds that we have all over already, like omentum, which is in the abdomen and hangs from the stomach and is a vascular bed. And, our vision is that we would be able to use that outside of the body to seed stem cells onto it, and turn that into a different organ to then replace into a patient," Gurtner explained.

Researchers in other parts of the country have succeeded in growing simpler tissue to form replacement bladders. But, Gurtner believes fully-functioning solid organs will require the growth of more complex vascular tissue and could take a decade to achieve.

In the meantime he says other kinds of functioning organ tissue are probably much closer.

"Our first potential clinical application would be to replace a single missing protein. The classic example of where that would be applicable is hemophilia or bloodclotting," he said.

Dr. Gurtner says the tissue created in his lab has not recreated organ function yet, but in animal tests the tissue has survived for months without rejection after being reimplanted.

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