In an effort to ease the nation's organ shortage, scientists are transforming pig livers to look and act like human ones.
Workers in a suburban Minneapolis lab dissolve pig cells that made the organ function, leaving ghostly semitranslucent scaffolds floating in large jars. To complete the metamorphosis, they infuse those shells with human cells from donated livers that went untransplanted.
The process is highly experimental, but manufacturer Miromatrix is making plans for first-step human testing — an experiment outside a patient's body to see how well a bioengineered liver can filter blood.
"We essentially regrow the organ," said Jeff Ross, CEO of Miromatrix. "Our bodies won’t see it as a pig organ anymore."
Miromatrix plans first-of-its-kind human testing of a bioengineered organ to start trying to prove it sometime in 2023.
The initial experiment will be outside a patient's body If the Food and Drug Administration agrees. Researchers would place a pig-turned-humanlike liver next to a hospital bed to temporarily filter the blood of someone whose own liver suddenly failed. And if that novel "liver assist" works, it would be a critical step toward eventually attempting a bioengineered organ transplant — probably a kidney.
"It all sounds science fiction-ey but it’s got to start somewhere," said Dr. Sander Florman, a transplant chief at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, one of several hospitals already planning to participate in the liver-assist study. "This is probably more of the near future than xenotransplantation," or directly implanting animal organs into people.
More than 105,000 people are on the U.S. waiting list for an organ transplant. Thousands will die before it is their turn. Thousands more never even get put on the list, considered too much of a long shot.
"The number of organs we have available are never going to be able to meet the demand," said Dr. Amit Tevar, a transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "This is our frustration."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.