In an effort to alleviate the country’s organ shortage, scientists are transforming pig livers to look and behave like human livers.
Workers at a lab in suburban Minneapolis are dissolving pig cells that made the organ work, leaving ghostly semi-transparent scaffolds floating in large jars. To complete the metamorphosis, they infuse these shells with human cells from donated livers that have not been transplanted.
The process is highly experimental, but manufacturer Miromatrix is planning initial human testing — an experiment outside of a patient’s body to see how well a bioengineered liver can filter blood.
“We’re essentially regrowing the organ,” said Jeff Ross, CEO of Miromatrix. “Our body will no longer see it as a pig organ.”
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Miromatrix is planning the first-of-its-kind human test of a bioengineered organ to begin trying to prove it sometime in 2023.
The first experiment is performed outside of a patient’s body, if the Food and Drug Administration approves. Researchers placed a human-like pig’s liver next to a hospital bed to temporarily filter the blood of someone whose own liver suddenly failed. And if this novel “liver assist” works, it would be a critical step toward eventually attempting a bioengineered organ transplant — likely a kidney.
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“It all sounds like science fiction, but it has to start somewhere,” said Dr. Sander Florman, transplant director at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, one of several hospitals already planning to participate in the liver support study. “That’s probably more in the near future than xenotransplantation,” or the direct implantation of animal organs into humans.
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More than 105,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ transplant in the United States. Thousands will die before their turn comes. Thousands more are not even included in the list, which is considered too far-fetched.
“The number of organs available to us will never be able to meet the need,” said Dr. Amit Tevar, a transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “This is our frustration.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.