HOUSTON — More than 1,600 people are on the waiting list for a lung transplant. Now, scientists at UTMB in Galveston have come up with something that will give them hope. For the first time, scientists have successfully grown human lungs in the lab.
Growing organs may seem like science fiction, but it’s the goal of medical researchers because so many people need organ transplants and many die waiting for one.
“The most exciting part is to shorten the time people have to wait for an organ transplant,” said UTMB Dr. Joaquin Cortiella.
How did they do it? They started with a damaged lung.
“We removed all the cells all the material in it, and just left the skeleton of the lung, or the scaffold, behind — the pieces of the lungs that are no cells. That’s why it’s so white and pretty and there’s no blood in it, it’s very pretty looking. And then we added back cells from another lung that couldn’t be used for transplant but still had some viable cells in it,” said Dr. Joan Nichols, who leads the UTMB team.
But it took months until a UTMB medical student named Dr. Michael Riddle built a piece of equipment that sped up the process.
“He’s the one who went home and actually built using — I’m not kidding — a fish tank that he went and bought from a pet store, is what he built the first piece of equipment,” Dr. Nichols said.
“Took us about four months to take the cells from the lung to where all you have is a bio-scaffold, and we took that process down to about three days,” Dr. Riddle said.
UTMB scientists grew their first human lungs in the lab last year. Eyewitness News is the first to report it.
“It’s taken us a year to prove to ourselves that we actually did a good job with it. You don’t run out immediately and tell the world you have something wonderful until you’ve proved it to ourselves that we really did something amazing,” Dr. Nichols said.
Dr. Nichols says they hope to transplant the first set of lab-grown lungs in animals this year or next.
How soon could their lab-grown lungs be ready to save human lives? They aren’t sure, but estimate between 5 and 10 years, maybe longer.