We all know scientists can clone organs, but imagine getting a fully functioning beating heart just by adding some cells to a framework, and then leaving them to do what cells do.
Well a team at the University of Minnesota has done just that – even if it was only a rat heart. By stripping nearly all the cells off the heart so that only a very basic framework remained, the scientists then added some of those miniature medical miracles: stem cells. Given time to mature properly, and nothing but the framework and gravity to help them, the cells grew not only a heart, but one which amazingly started beating normally when electrical impulses – just like those our brains produce to make our own natural hearts beat – were sent through.
Now you may think using it was ‘cheating’ using the original rat heart as the framework, rather than an artificial one, but consider this analogy: strip a house down completely, then get some strangers to come in and put everything back exactly as it used to be. It doesn’t make any difference whether the house is the same house that was stripped down, or an exact replica a few streets away – it will be exactly as difficult in both.
So what are the human implications? In theory, if a person needed a heart transplant, a doctor could simply take a few of their stem cells and put them on a pre-prepared heart framework, and voila, a fully functioning heart with no chance of rejection like normal heart transplants, because it is made of the person’s own cells.
In reality, it is much cheaper and more practical to simply repair a heart, rather than grow a new one, so we may not be seeing ‘heart farms’ anytime soon. But they should be very useful for research.
What are your views on growing new organs – is this the future of healthcare, or should we not interfere with things like stem cells? I personally think any advance like this is brilliant, but I’d be interested to hear your comments – post them below!