Scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch are celebrating a breakthrough as they successfully transplanted lab-grown lungs into pigs. The lungs, called “bioengineered lungs,” were created using donor pigs’ lungs. The lungs were reportedly cleaned using sugar and detergent, which left a “scaffolding” from which the scientists could work. Blood vessels and lung tissue cells were “repopulated,” according to Science News. This took 30 days inside a bioreactor tank, where the lungs were pumped with nutrients.
During the experiment, the pigs’ left lungs were transplanted alongside a bioengineered lung. Some pigs were able to live for several weeks, others a couple of months, without complications. While the lungs functioned during the study, they weren’t connected to pulmonary arteries. That meant that the pigs’ new lungs couldn’t replenish itself with oxygen, as it normally would. However, the transplanted lungs developed blood vessels and connected to the rest of the pigs’ vascular system, according to Popular Science.
The team of scientists that worked on this experiment has a previous track record of setting new precedents. Back in 2014, Joan Nichols and her team bioengineered a human lung.
“This project has taken 15 years to get to this point and we are thrilled that we did so well,” Nichols said. “We are pretty tired now though.”
Engineered pig lung transplant 'a success' https://t.co/tKLRvWDQ2L
— BBC Science News (@BBCScienceNews) August 3, 2018
The researchers hope that the technology could one day be used for human lung transplants. A new lung could be made “built-to-order” using the person’s own cells, detailed Wired. Researchers are considering the possibilities of using donor lungs, or a 3D print of a “scaffolding” to work from when it comes to producing similar results in humans. Currently there are around 1,500 people who are on a waiting list for a transplant, and this new technology could help make sure people could get the transplant they need.
The latest experiment, to Nichols, is just “a small preclinical project.”
“What we make is okay, but it will not support production of lungs for the clinic. We need better equipment that really meets the needs of the project,” she added.
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) August 1, 2018
As Nichols imagines her next steps with the experiments, she says that she wants to improve the facilities. She mentions that she wants a clean room for bioreactors and automated equipment to lower the possibilities of human error. Scientists hope that future pigs could live for a year or longer, as the technology becomes more refined. However, it looks like the road is still long before human bioengineered lung transplants could take place.