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The Seraphim

When saving lives, what’s on the inside matters

The ins and outs of organ transplantation

Quinn Discerni, Staff Writer

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Scientists have grown tiny human livers that can be surgically implanted into mice, with hopes that the same process can be done on a much larger scale with humans.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is developing an artificial liver that can filter a person’s blood in the same way a natural liver can. These artificial livers are a combination of mechanical components and actual living cells.

With the use of 3D printing technology, scientists around the world will soon print biological material. Artificial bones, veins, skin, and more will be available for use in healthcare in hospitals across the globe.

The use of artificial organs in medical treatments is slowly becoming a reality. Through information found in recent scientific advancements, some forms of these treatments are available today and will become increasingly prevalent in the coming years.

Though this may seem unrealistic or futuristic, artificial components of the body, both inside and out, make up legitimate treatments currently being used around the world.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor, Biomedical Engineering, the field in which these progressions are made is expected to increase by 23 percent in the next 10 years. As a result of this increase in size, the amount of study and research on the topic should increase, meaning that transplantable artificial organs are likely to become more commonplace as time goes on.

But this is not the only reason artificial organs are closer to becoming well-known.

These artificial organs offer the possibility of a treatment that is much safer and more reliable than current organ transplants. According to a poll of Notre Dame Prep students, almost a quarter of the students asked had never heard that artificial organs are a reality.

This is not surprising, as the science that makes the generation of artificial organs possible is still new and highly experimental.

Furthermore, every person asked said that they would be willing to use this form of treatment if it were necessary to preserve their health.

Organ Donation

While this science is growing and developing, organ donation is still the common way to go for most patients.

Although organ transplants are not considered everyday procedures, they are not uncommon in the U.S. According to the American Transplant Foundation, 123,000 people in the U.S. are currently on the waiting list to receive an organ, yet only 28,000 people receive transplants every year.

Senior Taylor Kujawa, a member of the NDP blood drive board, spoke to why there are so few people willing to donate parts of their body: “Lots of people are afraid of what might happen to them if they donate. They are afraid of the process. It’s either that or they just don’t care enough to donate.” This unreasonable sense of fear and ignorance regarding donation is one reason that there is such a drastic difference between the number of donations and the number of people who need them.

Theology teacher Stephen Matuszak is an organ donor, as noted on his driver’s license. Photo: Quinn Discerni

Of those 28,000 yearly procedures, kidneys are the most commonly transplanted organs, making up over half of total transplants in the U.S. The next most common is liver transplantation, which makes up about a quarter of yearly transplants in the U.S.

So, since it is clear that such operations are not performed infrequently, it is unsurprising that there have been organ transplants in the Notre Dame Prep community. Senior Ian Maddock was able to talk about one such situation:

Maddock is good friends with the McCarver family, which has been part of the NDP community for years. Jake McCarver, an NDP alumnus, developed kidney failure. He became very sick and was soon in desperate need of a kidney donation.

This was a frightening moment for the McCarver family, as organ donations are not easy to come by. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a person is added to the organ transplant waiting list every 10 minutes. With such large numbers of people in need, Jake’s chances of receiving a quick donation were unlikely.

His mother, Tara McCarver, was able to donate a kidney to her son. Had they not been compatible, Jake’s wait for a kidney would have been much longer, as the average waiting time for a kidney donation is about five months.

The procedure was successful, and Jake recovered.

“It was really cool to see that his mother was willing to donate a kidney for him, and it’s awesome that he was able to recover,” Maddock said.

What’s the problem with organ donations?

Although organ transplants are a more available option than artificially generated organs, there are still many things that can go wrong in the process.

In order for a transplant to be successful, the patient in need must first survive long enough for an organ to be procured. Once an organ becomes available, then the patient must undergo an intense surgery in which the old organ is extracted and the new organ is inserted.

Understandably, this process is hard on the already-weak patients, especially during surgeries concerning the heart or other sensitive organs.

Finally, according to biology teacher Christopher Johnson, the organ must be accepted into the body by the immune system, less it be rejected. This is the point in the process where care for the patient becomes more complex than most people believe.

In order for the organ to be sufficiently accepted by the patient’s immune system, there must be more than a simple match in blood type between the donor and the recipient. The antigens, or molecules covering the organ, of the donor must match those of the person receiving the organ. If these antigens are not accepted by the receiving patient’s immune system, it will attack the organ as if it was a foreign and dangerous material. This is known as transplant rejection, and is one of the most unpleasant possible outcomes of organ transplantation, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

“It’s just not as simple as a lot of people think,” said Johnson.

In order to improve chances of acceptance, medicine is prescribed that inhibits the immune system so that the organ can assimilate with its new body. This is another problem in the process:

In this case, the immune system is inhibited, making it harder for the body to fight against germs and poisons that are harmful to the body, said Johnson.

“The patient is much more likely to contract other illnesses. For a person recently out of dangerous surgery, this is not a good state to be in,” said Johnson.

These are just some of the many complexities and uncertainties involved in organ transplantation. Although it has saved lives, it is an extremely dangerous procedure that requires timing and a certain amount of luck.

These imperfections in the transplant system make artificial organ generation a worthwhile alternative.

How they’re made: artificial organs

The process by which artificially generated tissues are created would solve many of these problems. Rather than attempting to match the bio-information of the donor and the receiving patient, the tissue is grown in what is called an extracellular matrix, according to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

In an extracellular matrix, the tissue is grown naturally by scientists using artificial signals, sent to the cells in various sequences, that help the tissue grow in the desired way.

Because of this process, artificial organs can be more safely implanted into patients without the danger of the immune system rebelling.

This process has been proved before in experiments on mice. For example, NIBIB-funded researchers have engineered tiny human liver tissues that can be implanted into mice. This liver functions in the same way as it would in a human. Despite this amazing process, there is not yet enough experience for these organs to be used in human procedures.

The black market

Since organs are so hard to find for those on the waiting list, it is unsurprising that there is a worldwide business for trafficking “illegal organs”. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services data on Organ Procurement and Transplantation, only 30,970 transplants took place legally in 2015 while an additional 10,000-20,000 transplants may have occurred illegally.

This means that an incredibly large percentage of yearly transplants are illegal. Through the use of the Internet, patients can illegally buy transplantable organs for anywhere from $70,000 to $160,000.

According to law, organ trafficking is technically a form of human trafficking. This crime falls under three categories, according to decodedscience.org. The first category consists of people who trick the victim into giving up an organ for no cost. The second category is made up of con artists who convince people to sell their organs but do not pay what agreed to pay. The last group is made up of doctors who treat people for illnesses which might not even exist in the patient before removing the organs and selling them for their own gain.

It is because of crimes like these that the Catholic Church is not completely behind organ transplantation as a form of medical treatment. According to Dr. Stephen Matuszak, the Church is an advocate of saving lives in any way possible, but their support gets dicey when considering the condition of the donor.

For the procedure to be in line with the Church’s teachings, the patient must either give their full consent or be unquestionably dead before the organ is extracted. In criminal activity such as organ trafficking, these guidelines are not met, and therefore the Church’s opinion of transplantation is conditional.

Organ trafficking is an observable representation of how desperate people are for transplantable organs, as the system currently in place is controlled by unpredictable variables. This uncertainty is costing lives every day, and it is for this reason that other options are being researched.

Other options

The phrase “other options” might seem vague and unsubstantial, but treatments of organ borne ailments using artificial body parts are being used today, and have been used for years.

For example, in 1969, a mechanical, artificial heart was implanted into a patient who was dying of heart failure, via New York Times. The man survived until he was able to receive a donated heart a few days later. For the 1960s, this was an incredible invention and an incredible step forward in medicine.

Furthermore, according to Time, the first artificial liver was created in 2002 by Dr. Kenneth Matsumura. This invention uses living rabbit cells as well as complex machines to purify a patient’s blood.

These are just a couple examples of how artificial organs have been around for many years. Though treatments such as these are uncommon and widely unknown, they have been improved upon for decades and are becoming safer and more effective as time goes on.

3D printing

3D Printing is one of the most modern forms of manufacturing in use today, and its possible applications are endless. One such application is in medicine.

According to the 3D Printing Industry, 3D printing has had an enormous effect on the development and application of medical treatments:

One well known medical use of 3D printing is in making prosthetics. Using a printer, companies can make cheap, customizable prosthetics for people of any size or age. The process is much more simple than the traditional way of creating artificial limbs and gives the person more freedom to change the prosthetic in any way they want.

 

Using 3D printers and other technology, scientists around the world have performed medical miracles on desperate patients. Michael Butler uses the 3D printer at NDP. Photo: Quinn Discerni

 

3D printing has also been used in developing some outstanding creations in the world of medicine. For example, medical colleges and companies all over the world have been able to print things such as blood vessels, heart valves, ears, bone, and skin.

The ability to “bioprint” these body parts creates incredible possibilities. For instance, real bone could be 3D printed for use in hip or knee replacements, rather than a metal and plastic alternative; heart valves could be printed for people with heart dis–

ease; skin could be printed to treat those with third-degree burn wounds.

Based on all of the possible applications for the technology, 3D printing has incredible potential in the world of organ creation, and will likely contribute to medicine for years to come as science advances.

Looking forward

Medicine is one of the world’s constantly-developing fields of study. Because of this, treatments will always improve in ways people would have never imagined. This is the case with artificial organs and organ transplantation. With the application of each, countless possibilities are created in the world of medicine. One day treatments like these will be commonplace, and the world will be better off because of it.

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When saving lives, what’s on the inside matters