Creating our own human parts?!
In 1998, Adam Vasser, a 13-year-old teenager who loved playing baseball, was vacationing in Montana with his family when he suddenly came down with what felt like the flu. When he had trouble breathing and his ankles became swollen, his parents took him to a nearby clinic where the doctor on duty checked his vitals and sent him directly to the hospital across the street. By the time the family arrived at the hospital a few minutes later, Adam was in complete heart failure.
For months, Adam waited in a hospital for a heart transplant, and it wasn’t until like 5 months after getting sick, Adam underwent a heart transplant that saved his life.
But lot’s of people aren’t as lucky. And you’d think its been a while since 1998 so this issue would be solved but it’s really only gotten worse.
The Silent Killer: Organ Donations
There’s a worldwide shortage of organs. In the United States alone, more than 100,000 people are waiting for organ donations, and many of these patients will die waiting. And if you’re Canadian like me you’d be shocked to hear that eight people are dying every week from a shortage of organ donation.
Given this shortage of organs, why don’t more people donate?
There isn’t one answer for this but there definitely is a large disparity between the number of people who say that they support organ donation in theory and the number of people who actually register. In the U.K., for example, more than 90 percent of people say they support organ donation in opinion polls, but less than one-third are registered donors. So, what keeps well-intentioned people from donating?
Here are some of the reasons that researchers have found:
- Some people are simply uncomfortable or unwilling to talk about death at all.
- The less people trust medical professionals, the less likely they are to donate.
- There are a lot of people who believe that if a doctor knows you are a registered donor, they won’t do everything they can to save your life
There are a lot of other reasons, but overall it is clear to say that most people are just not willing to become donors. We can’t keep waiting around. We need to find other ways of creating organs. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking into how we can use tissue engineering and nanotechnology to create our own tissue and ultimately create our own organs for transplants.
This solution would reduce the waiting time, also eliminate any risk of organ rejection because the new organ would be made from the person’s own tissue
What is this ‘Nanotechnology’ you speak of?
Nanotechnology can be defined as the science of developing and studying materials and devices that function within the nanometer scale. Yeah… you probably still don’t get it.
Now, imagine you climbed out of the shower and you just shrunk by about 1500 million times. That’s still a bit difficult to conceptualize. Well, you’d be soooo small that when you’d step into your living room, what you’d see around you would not be chairs, tables, but rather atoms, molecules, proteins, and cells.
Since you’d be shrunk down to the “nanoscale,” you’d also be able to move all the atoms around. If you started sticking those atoms together in interesting new ways, you could build all kinds of fantastic materials, everything from brand new medicines to ultra-fast computer chips. Nano means “billionth”, so a nanometer is one billionth of a meter so it is very small. A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick..
We would be using Tissue engineering which involves the use of a tissue scaffold for the formation of new viable tissue for medical purposes. This process involves taking a tissue sample from the body, growing the cells from this sample into new tissue and then implanting the new “artificial” tissue back into the body.
Traditional engineering generally requires an organ for a starting scaffold to supply the basic structure. This is often donated but leads to the same shortage issues. Tissue engineers are now hoping to bypass lengthy waits for donor organs by using synthetic scaffolds.
One of the first successes came in 2012, when a team at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, transplanted a synthetic windpipe for the first time.
We would create a synthetic 3D scaffold to provide an environment for the regeneration of tissues and organs. These scaffolds essentially act as a template for tissue formation and are typically seeded with cells and occasionally growth factors. Or even subjected to biophysical stimuli in the form of a bioreactor (a device or system which applies different types of mechanical or chemical stimuli to cells). These cell-seeded scaffolds are either cultured in vitro to synthesize tissues which can then be implanted into an injured site, or are implanted directly into the injured site, using the body’s own systems, where regeneration of tissues or organs is induced in vivo.
Scaffold — Nanofibres
Tissue is a fundamental building component of all humans bodies. It is a group of similar cells that have a defined function these cells can be of the same type but different in size and function. Each tissue consists of two components, the cellular and extracellular matrix. Everything you see on your body is made up of some type of tissue, for example our heart is just muscle tissue, when we cut ourselves we feel pain through nerve tissue and blood is a type of liquid tissue. When we put a fake “tissue” in our body, it’s really smart and recognizes that something is different — and then your body attacks the tissue as if it was a disease.
This is why Nanofibres are effective because they are very similar to the extracellular matrix that makes up a lot of the tissue. The matrixes are basically mechanical support for the tissue it enables cells to be attached and regulates division, migration, and shape of the cell too. Cells grown on nanofibres are a bit cheated but they act naturally so we are able to create new tissues successfully. We can use patients cells, cultivate the tissue, and place them in a desired place.
Cells work on nanofibres because they are so delicate, and tiny that cells can catch easily. The more secure the cell, the faster it will reproduce the cells and more tissue is created. The structure that this happens on using nanofibres is called Scaffold — after it fulfills its function it breaks down or can serve as food for the cells.
Electrospinning to create Nanofibres
Electrospinning is a voltage-driven process governed by the electrohydrodynamics where fibers and particles are made from a polymer solution.
The most basic set up for this technique involves a solution contained in a syringe and tipped with a blunt needle (for needle-based electrospraying), a pump, a high voltage power source and a collector.
The spinning process starts when the solution is pumped at a constant flow rate and a specific voltage is applied to create an electric field between the needle tip and the collector. A charge accumulates at the liquid surface. When the electrostatic repulsion is higher than the surface tension the liquid meniscus is deformed into a conically shaped structure known as the Taylor cone.
Once the Taylor cone is formed, the charged liquid jet is ejected towards the collector. Collectors can be but are not limited to, stationary flat plates, rotating drums, mandrels, and disks. Depending on the solution viscosity solid fibers will be formed as the solvent evaporates from the quick motion that occurs from the Taylor cone to the collector. The result is a non-woven fiber mat that is deposited on the collector that look like this:
The diameter of these fibers typically ranges between tens of nanometers to a few micrometers.
Electrospinning is also being used for other applications like drug delivery, food encapsulation, energy conversion and storage and much more.
Electrospinning Nanofibers: Needle-less versus Needle-based
There are two ways nanofibers can be made through the electrospinning technique: needle-less and needle-based.
In needle-less electrospinning, the starting polymer solution is transferred to an open vessel where the fibers are generated from a stationary or rotating platform.
In needle-based electrospinning, the starting polymer solution is typically contained in an air-tight closed reservoir, this minimizes and prevents solvent evaporation.
Regardless of the method, you will have nanofibres which can be used to create the scaffolds for the cells from the tissue to grow on and reproduce on.
Interested in learning more? You can learn more about this by watching this video I made 😊
But wait… before you leave check out some of these sick organs that have already been engineered:
Moving Forward: engineered Humans?
This technology is a superpower. Just think about it, we can now create our own human parts?! I wonder if moving forward we can find ways to synthetically produce other parts of the human body and create fully engineered humans. Since these created organs are very similar to the original tissues, maybe they can also be used to test drugs and other treatments without any risk to human health. The possibilities are truly endless.