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First Functioning Organ Grown in Living Animal

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have successfully grown a fully functioning organ from transplanted laboratory-created cells in a living animal. While researchers have grown organs in controlled lab environments, this marks the first time that an organ has been created within a living mammal.

Researchers created a thymus, an organ located next to the heart that produces important immune cells, known as T cells, which are vital for guarding against disease.

The scientists were able to take cells called fibroblasts, and turn them into thymus cells in lab mice. Thymus cells are completely different kind of cell from fibroblasts, which were created in this experiment using reprogramming. The reprogrammed thymus cells were capable of supporting development of T cells, a specialized function that only thymus cells can perform, according to materials from the university recounted by a press release from the University of Edinburgh.

On the left, specialized thymus cells were grown after reprogramming fibroblasts. On the right, lab-grown cells were implanted into a mouse kidney to create a functional "mini-thymus" in a living animal. Credit: MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh.

Once researchers mixed these reprogrammed cells with other key thymus cell types and transplanted them into a mouse, the cells formed a replacement organ. The new organ had the same structure, complexity, and functionality as a healthy adult thymus. Researchers hope that with further study, the discovery may lead to new treatments for those with a weakened immune system.

This is the first time researchers have created an entire living organ from cells that were created outside of the body through the process of reprogramming. The technique may also offer a way of making patient-matched T cells in the laboratory that could be used in patient-specific cell therapies.

This discovery could prove to be groundbreaking in the growing exploration of regenerative medicine. Recently engineers at MIT designed a biodegradable implantable tissue that can naturally grow bone in the body. The potential impact of lab-created organs and tissue could be monumental when considering the growing number of patients around the world various awaiting transplants.

Despite the various challenges to mass-producing lab-created organs, recent developments such as the lab-generated thymus could prove to be a major step in the direction of organ development and replacement. It also has opened the door to generating specific cells in a lab, paving the way for new innovative cell therapies.

All of these efforts are done with the end goal being to harness the body's own repair mechanisms, and learning how to manipulate and control these mechanisms to treat diseases. Once these lab-created cells are introduced to the body, they can serve as a catalyst for the immune system, sparking T cell creation and other natural therapeutic responses.

The discovery could also offer hope to patients with genetic immune system deficiencies, specifically those who do not have a fully developed thymus. It could even lead to therapies that could strengthen the thymus, as the organ naturally deteriorates with age, causing many older patients to be more susceptible to common infections such as the flu. Introducing reprogrammed lab-generated cells into the body could help strengthen the thymus, stimulating natural T cell production that could help older adults stave off viruses and infections.

Although it's early, research in regenerative medicine appears to be growing exponentially, with cell, tissue, and organ generation rising to the forefront of the industry. As waiting lists for organs continue to grow around the world, could lab-created organs be the next revolutionary discovery in modern medicine?

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MEDevice San Diego, September 10-11, 2014.

Kristopher Sturgis is a contributor to Qmed and MPMN.

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