A shortage of donor organs costs 130 lives per year, in the Netherlands alone. Start-up Renewal Bio will soon have the solution, although it is controversial.
Huge drama due to shortage of donor organs
There is a desperate shortage of donor organs. And have we finally managed to find a suitable donor? Then the patient has to take heavy drugs to prevent the organ from being rejected. If we find a solution for this, we will save more than 130 lives a year, in the Netherlands alone. And finally help for the 1,300 seriously ill people on the waiting list, who now often die before they can be helped.
The solution: cultured donor organs
The ideal solution would be if an organ with exactly the same DNA as the patients could be implanted. With this you could simultaneously remedy the donor organ shortage and the rejection reactions. The best way to grow such organs is from a patient’s stem cell. And then let it grow into a new organ.
The good news is, there is now a start-up that has succeeded in making this happen. At least: in mice. Although mice are a lot smaller than us, they are biologically quite similar to us. They are also mammals.
Growing a baby from a skin cell, in a bottle
Renewal Bio takes a “naive” stem cell (a cell that can develop into anything. Scientists have been able to turn skin cells from adult humans, and of course mice into these naive stem cells) from an adult mouse a while ago and let it develop into a so-called gastrula. That is the very beginning of a fish-like shape and thus of a body with a clear shape.
Each cell in this gastrula later becomes a specific place in the body, so you can grow donor organs here as desired. For example a heart, a kidney or lung. Now the researchers have succeeded in growing these tufts of cells into healthy embryos that look exactly like natural embryos. Also the beginnings of organs formed, just like in natural embryos. A beating heart, blood vessels through which blood flowed, the beginning of a brain in the form of a fold.
An ethical issue: can we grow embryos for donor organs?
As long as the experiments with mice take place, there is “of course” no problem. But what if we start working with human stem cells? In fact, we then grow babies from a skin cell in a bottle. Can we kill one life to save another? Is it possible to grow a human embryo without a brain? And what if a handy hobbyist develops a do-it-yourself kit so that you can clone the best football player in the world in your shed for your team? A tricky dilemma.