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This year, medical science witnessed a miracle of sorts. US surgeon Dr Bartley Griffith performed a seven-hour surgery to transplant a pig heart into a human. Dr Griffith said that he previously transplanted pig hearts into about 50 baboons over five years before conducting a similar surgery on a human.
In a press release, Griffith said, “This was a breakthrough surgery and brings us one step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. Unfortunately, there are not enough donor human hearts available to meet the long list of potential recipients.”
Dr Griffith is right, organ shortage is a major challenge facing the world today. As per a WHO report, as many as 5 lakh people die every year waiting for an organ in India alone. In such a situation, Xenotransplantation (heterologous transplant – from one species to another) seems to be an innovative solution. That said, the complication that may arise from such a surgery aside, there are also a few ethical and moral challenges associated.
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In such a situation, an alternative – lab-grown organs or artificial organs may be an apt solution. It is an upcoming field, and India Inc., along with government policies, seem to be encouraging this.
Tackling organ shortage
The Indian government funds an autonomous institute called the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) – a state-of-art research institute based in Bangalore that is dedicated to the study of stem cells and regenerative biology. As per the inStem website, the institute adopts a “cross-disciplinary, multi-pronged approach to research, and straddles the divide between clinical and laboratory research in stem cell biology.”
One of the themes that reflects strongly on the kind of research inStem carries out is ‘Technologies for Advancement of Science.’ The work here spans disciplines such as fundamental and applied biology. One of the major projects that the team carried out was developing new tissues/cell types in the dish using stem cell technology.
This is not the only institute working on the artificial construction of tissues/cells. Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Science has recently joined hands with a global 3D bioprinting company called CELLINK to launch 3D bioprints. It is a process where bioinks are mixed with living cells and printed in 3D to construct natural tissue-like 3D structures.
Experts believe that intensive research and bioprinting can make organ duplication possible in laboratories. This technology can also aid researchers in developing cells and organs to mimic actual human cells. This CoE is touted to be the first of its kind in India and will be established at the Centre for BioSystems Science and Engineering (BSSE) in IISc.
In the past, Kaushik Chatterjee, associate professor at the Department of Materials Engineering, IISc and his team showcased a technique of building tissue scaffolds that mimic the tissue microenvironment functionally and structurally. In a study, the team prepared bioprinted silk fibroin scaffolds for bone tissue regeneration and, in another, carried out experiments with k-carrageenan to be used as a component in bioniks for soft tissues.
In 2015, Bangalore-based biotech startup Pandorum Technologies became the first Indian company to develop an artificial living tissue. Pandorum is funded by the Department of Biotechnology and was incubated at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), Bangalore Bio-Cluster.
The founders of the company had claimed that their artificial liver could perform the same functions as that of a human liver – leading to affordable and full-scale transplantable organs, apart from furthering the development of new medicines and vaccines. Back then, the team was able to keep the cells alive for four weeks.
Another Bangalore-based company – Next Big Innovation Lab (NBIL), has set out to become the bio innovation centre of the country. One of its biggest achievements is the development of a 3D printed human skin called Innoskin. This 3D bioprinted skin has both medical and cosmetic uses.
Advances in the field of 3D bioprinting, nanotechnology, and gene editing are pushing the needle when it comes to making lab-grown/developed tissues and organs. US-based Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine is one of the leading players in the field. It was the first institute to transplant a lab-grown organ into a 10-year-old patient.
Stem cell scientists of the Israel-based Weizmann Institute of Science have recently claimed to have created ‘synthetic embryos’ without using sperm, eggs or fertilisation. The future is truly exciting.