Revolutionary Expert in Pig Organ Transplants Using Stem Cells: Pioneering the ‘Ghost Heart’ Concept

**The Ghost Heart: A Revolutionary Approach to Heart Transplants**

Heart disease is the leading cause of death globally, accounting for 32% of all deaths each year. With the limited availability of heart donors, many patients in need of a heart transplant are left with no options. However, scientists like Doris Taylor are working to change that. Taylor, a renowned scientist in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering, has been focused on creating personalized functioning human hearts in the lab using a revolutionary procedure called the “ghost heart” method.

**The Challenges of Organ Donations Today**

The current organ donation system faces significant challenges. Patients in need of a heart transplant must join a waitlist, and hearts become available only when someone else has passed away. As a result, only the most critically ill patients are granted access to the waitlist. This leaves thousands of people waiting for a heart, with over 3,000 individuals awaiting a heart transplant on any given day in the United States alone.

Even when organ transplants are successful, patients face new medical complications and diseases. The drugs required to prevent organ rejection often have harmful side effects, including high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and kidney failure. Ultimately, about 18% of patients die within the first year after a transplant.

**The Concept of the Ghost Heart**

The “ghost heart” is a heart that has had its cells removed, leaving behind only the heart’s framework, or scaffolding. This process gives the heart its name, as the removal of cells causes it to turn white. Producing a human heart scaffold is challenging due to the scarcity of available human hearts. Therefore, Taylor and her team turned to pig hearts, which have a similar size and structure to human hearts.

To create a ghost heart, the pig heart is gently washed with a mild detergent through its blood vessels, removing all the cells. This process, known as perfusion decellularization, leaves behind a cell-free heart scaffold that can be seeded with new cells, derived from a patient’s own cells, to create a personalized heart.

**The Role of Stem Cells in Heart Creation**

Stem cells play a crucial role in the creation of a functioning heart. Unlike heart cells, which do not divide, stem cells have the ability to divide and differentiate into specialized cells, such as heart cells. Nobel laureate Dr. Shinya Yamanaka discovered a method to convert adult blood or skin cells into stem cells. Taylor and her team used this method to obtain a large quantity of stem cells, which were then differentiated into heart cells. Witnessing these heart cells beating in a lab dish was a life-changing moment for Taylor.

However, while the cells are alive and beating, they are not yet a fully functioning heart. To create a heart, the cells must be placed into a form that allows them to become a unified organ. Taylor’s team recreated the process of heart development that occurs naturally in a human body, nurturing the cells and providing the necessary conditions for them to mature and pump blood.

**The Advantages of Building Hearts Using Pig Scaffolding**

While any heart is better than no heart at all, the use of pig scaffolding in heart creation offers several advantages over other methods. In the past, genetically engineered pig hearts were transplanted into humans, but the organs still contained pig cells and required anti-rejection drugs. In some cases, hidden complications, like pig viruses, led to the death of the patient.

Taylor’s ghost heart method removes all pig cellular material from the scaffold, leaving only the protein structure and blood vessel channels. The protein structure is so similar to human scaffold proteins that it does not appear to cause rejection. This breakthrough eliminates the need for anti-rejection drugs and reduces the risk of complications, such as pig viruses, associated with previous methods.

**Challenges in the Ghost Heart Effort**

Developing the ghost heart procedure comes with significant challenges. Firstly, growing the necessary cells in sufficient quantities is both time-consuming and costly. Secondly, ensuring the heart’s maturation after cell delivery requires a sterile environment without the use of antibiotics. Taylor’s team has overcome these challenges by creating a specialized biocradle that mimics the conditions necessary for the heart to develop outside the human body. This includes providing food, temperature control, oxygen, nutrients, blood pressure, and artificial blood flow.

Creating a fully functional heart requires training the immature heart cells to work together while growing strong enough to pump blood. Additionally, feeding and oxygenating the cells without lungs and maintaining sterility without an immune system pose significant obstacles. Taylor compares the process to conducting a symphony, with each element needing to come together at the right time for the heart to function properly.

**The Future of Organ Donations**

In the next 30 years, the field of organ donations is poised for significant advancements. Scientists aim to increase the number of organ donors, rejuvenate organs that are currently unusable, and develop new technologies like the ghost heart method. However, it is crucial to address the issue of unequal access to organ transplants. Currently, people of color face barriers and inequities in organ transplant systems.

As science progresses, the goal is to make organs more accessible and develop organs that do not require expensive and potentially harmful drugs. Taylor envisions a future where organs can be built earlier, transforming heart transplants from emergency procedures to planned hospital surgeries. This transformation, if achieved, will revolutionize the field and ensure equitable access to life-saving treatments.

**In Conclusion**

The ghost heart procedure offers hope for patients in need of heart transplants. By utilizing pig scaffolding and a patient’s own cells, scientists can create personalized functioning human hearts. While there are challenges to overcome, the potential benefits of this method are significant. As the field of organ donations continues to evolve, the goal is to increase the availability of organs, improve outcomes, and ensure equitable access for all those in need.

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