According to the Richmond, Va., based United Network for Organ Sharing, the non-profit group that administers the federal Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, some 27,037 Americans received an organ transplant in 2004. This transplant tally was the highest ever, representing a triumph for those doctors working to give critically ill patients a renewed chance at life.
Yet even as the number of transplants rises, so too does the number of patients languishing on waiting lists. Last year's record number of transplants, for instance, did not meet even a third of the demand for replacement organs.
In the near term, the swiftest route to greater organ availability lies in more of us agreeing to donate organs after we die. A few years hence, however, there may be better options.
"Transplantation as we know it today is not the future; artificial substitutes are not the future," says Gabor Forgacs, a visionary biological physicist and the George H. Vineyard Professor of Physics at MU. Forgacs is a leader in the relatively new field of regenerative medicine. The future, he maintains, lies in growing replacement organs of one's own.
"A number of fundamental questions have to be answered first, but these do not seem to be insurmountable," he says.
Indeed, the idea of regenerating organs is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Forgacs has pioneered several new techniques in "organ printing," a method of three-dimensional cell assembly that has already succeeded in forming live cells into "biological tubes" and organ parts. An advanced version of the technique, described in the Spring 2004 edition of this magazine, could conceivably allow scientists to "print" replacement organs from patients' own cells.
Because these organs would originate from the people who will receive them, there would be little chance of rejection.
"We probably will never learn exactly how biological self-assembly works, but we will not need to," Forgacs says. "What we want to know is how to control self-assembly and to mimic what the biological system does. Once we understand the fundamental organizing principles that control this self-assembly, and the cues that are necessary to provide to the system, we can use that knowledge in our organ printing technology."
The National Science Foundation is a believer. In September the foundation awarded Forgacs $5 million to support his organ-printing investigations.
Published by the Office of Research.
©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.