Stem cells from a mouse
New research could make it possible for pigs to grow human organs for transplants in the next decade. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Though the science remains controversial, a breakthrough in stem cell research may result in pigs being used to grow human organs within the next decade. The process that was discovered allows organs from one organism to be grown in a similar organism, so long as certain genetic modifications are made.

Genetic alteration creates mice with rat organs

A breakthrough in stem cell research has created the potential within 10 years’ time for human organs to be grown inside pigs, according to The Telegraph. A type of stem cells called pluripotent stem cells from one animal – stem cells that can develop into several different types of tissue – are injected into the embryo of a different but similar animal. That genetically modified organism will grow and use the organs of the animal from which the pluripotent stem cells were harvested. This process is called blastocyst complementation.

Lead scientist insists on ethical use guidelines

In the recent experiments, mice embryos with a gene causing them to not grow a pancreas were injected with pluripotent stem cells from rats. The result was that the mice grew a rat pancreas that allowed them to fully absorb insulin, the hormone that allows the body to ingest sugars.

The lead scientist in the experiment, Professor Hiromitsu Nakauchi from the University of Tokyo, maintains that there is much work to do before human organs can be grown in a similar fashion. Nakauchi’s experiment uses a form of stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs. These cells are created by causing certain types of adult cells to express certain genes that turn them into the correct type of stem cell. The process doesn’t use embryonic cells.

Nakauchi notes that there are ethical concerns, particularly when it comes to appeasing critics who fear the dark science fiction scenario in which humans are used as organ farms. He stresses that once it is determined whether pigs can safely be used to grow human organs, stem cell ethics dictate that the process would not then be applied to humans harvesting organs for other humans.

The uses of stem cells

Stem cells, embryonic or otherwise, are at the forefront of medical research and they show a fantastic amount of potential for helping to save lives. For instance, according to Reuters, a clinical trial at the Jules Stein Eye Institute will attempt to use embryonic stem cells to reverse macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss. The massive shortfall of available transplant organs will also likely be addressed, should the science progress. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are an average 3,000 people waiting every day for the 2,000 hearts that become available every year.

Sources

The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8584443/Pigs-could-grow-human-organs-in-stem-cell-breakthrough.html

Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/16/advancedcell-stemcells-idUSN1626088320110616

Wikipedia on Stem Cells: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stem_cell

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