There just aren't enough donated organs to fill the need. That's why scientists have been dreaming of growing transplantable organs in labs. Scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Regenerative Medicine have made a step forward by creating a functional rat kidney.
The process is not quite as futuristic as growing a whole organ from scratch. Researchers started with kidneys from dead rats and used a special soap-cleaning process to scrub away the cells. Essentially, this gave them a foundation of a kidney to work with, a blank canvas.
The next step involves regenerating the organ by inserting viable cells from the recipient rat using a vacuum process. This stage is pretty delicate. "We had quite a few kidneys blow up in a jar," says Harald Ott, instructor in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The organ is placed in a chamber that mimics the environment of a body. After a few days, the kidney starts to make a rudimentary form of urine. The kidney is then transplanted into a rat. Ott and his team have published the results of their work in Nature Medicine.
This isn't the first time researchers have developed bioengineered rat organs. Yale scientists created functional lung tissue through a similar process in 2010.
Though the kidney work is promising, it's still early days. The lab kidneys had significantly reduced function compared with healthy, original kidneys. Ott hopes to improve on that as his team looks into scaling the process up to work with human kidneys.
Ultimately, the process could turn nonviable organs into working organs that are designed to match each patient. There are nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. alone on the kidney transplant waiting list. These experiments could some day make a huge impact on many lives. We'll just have to see if Ott or 3D-printed organs get there first.