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Curing diseases with lab-grown organs

Organs and tissues grown in the lab may in the future be able to cure people with organ failures. Micha Drukker, professor of Stem Cells, Developmental Biology and Technology for Innovative Drug Research, is convinced that the use of stem cells will make this possible. He will deliver his inaugural lecture on 18 November.

At the present time, doctors generally treat symptoms of tissue damage. However, in order to cure the disease itself, we need to take a function that has been lost and recreate it. Diabetics taking insulin are a good example. Insulin makes the symptoms disappear, but not the diabetes itself. ‘To cure a disease, we have to repair what has gone wrong,’ Drukker says.  ‘In the future, if your liver has stopped working, part of your brain is damaged or your heart isn’t working properly, we will be able to replace those defective or missing body parts. For diabetes we will grow new pancreatic islets (cells in the pancreas that are damaged in diabetes patients, Ed.).’

New organs and tissues can be made from the patient’s own cells.

Stem cells

These new organs and tissues can be made from the patient’s own cells. From those cells stem cells can be made using cellular reprogramming technology. These are cells that can develop into different cell types and eventually tissues and organs. Put simply, in the lab the stem cells are given instructions to make a specific cell. According to Drukker, the basis for the technology is already available to make tissues and organs from the body’s own cells. ‘We need to connect existing technologies, and bridge gaps to bring all the parts together. That will take a lot of money, time and research. Our research is focused on enhancing the differentiation of stem cells to clinically useful cell types and on computational cell safety analysis.’

Injecting cells

The idea isn’t to grow a complete heart or lung in the lab. According to Drukker, that would be very difficult. ‘The fundamental problem is to make things big enough. In a normal situation, cells grow naturally in the human body, where they receive the oxygen and nutrients needed to develop.’ So far, no solution has been found for making whole organs in a lab environment. However, for specific disease, an enormous progress is possible by growing cells or cluster of cells, which can then be injected or placed in the body during an operation. After that, the body will do the rest by taking up the cells. This way, part of a heart, nervous system or bone marrow can be ‘repaired’. And diabetes patients can be given new pancreatic islets. ‘These are tiny and don't necessarily have to have structure in order to treat diabetes. We can make billions and inject those.’

'A lot of human suffering will disappear thanks to this technology, I've no doubt about that.’


Drukker expects that, within the next five years, stem cell therapy will prove promise to cure diabetes patients. He is also hopeful about treatments for other diseases. ‘I really hope that within a few years we will be able to slow down the brutal symptoms of ALS, and began treating nerve degeneration and injury.’ He is very optimistic about these new technological advances. ‘A lot of human suffering will disappear thanks to this technology, I've no doubt about that.’

Examples of stem cell therapies

Bone marrow transplantation is an example of a stem cell therapy that has been used since 1960’s to cure certain cancers, such as leukaemia. Once implanted, the new cells produce a new immune system, clotting system and the red blood cells that carry oxygen.

A more recent success of stem cell therapy has helped improve the vision of people with a particular form of blindness. They were implanted with a new layer of retinal pigment epithelial cells (cells that are important for retinal function).

Text: Dagmar Aarts

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