After the first heart transplant in 1967 by Professor Christiaan Barnard, advances in transplantation have saved and prolonged the lives of millions of patients around the world. Nevertheless, this practice still faces two major obstacles, on one side the risk of rejection by the body, and on the other the lack of donors. These pitfalls could soon be a thing of the past however, thanks to the success achieved by researchers following an unprecedented experiment.
As announced in an article published Wednesday in the Science Translational Medicine journal, researchers from the UTMB (University of Texas Medicinal Branch) have indeed managed to create lungs in the laboratory, and then implant them with no complications into pigs.
A pulmonary ‘skeleton’
The first step taken by scientists was to construct four artificial structures intended to accommodate future lung cells. To achieve this, the researchers simply used genuine porcine lungs, from which they removed almost all cells using a particular form of glucose, dextrose, and then a mixture of detergents.
Only the proteins of the pig lungs remained then, thus forming a kind of pulmonary skeleton. Once obtained, these structures were placed in a tank filled with a mixture of nutrients. The scientists then added some of the pigs’ own cells who would be receiving the future organs. After about 30 days, the growth of the organs was sufficiently advanced that the researchers could start their transplant into the bodies of the four recipient pigs.
Only two weeks after the surgery, the bioengineered lungs had already developed a large vascular network, essential for their survival. Partly formed from the cells of the recipient pigs, the transplanted lungs were not rejected, even after two months of surveillance.
The beginnings of a revolutionary practice
Researchers remain very cautious however, and now intend to continue their follow up in the long-term, to ensure the organ viability over time. If these first promising results are confirmed, this innovative experiment could then revolutionise the methods of organ transplantation, opening the way for grafts free of any risk of rejection, and free from the uncertainty surrounding donations.
The researchers hope to be able to benefit human patients in five to ten years, in the context of compassionate use, that is to say for patients at a therapeutical impasse. But in a relatively near future, this innovative and promising technique could be the answer for all who are in need of organs.
This is a huge step forward for the delicate medical art of transplantation, half a century after the first heart transplant.