World first: Scientists successfully transplant lab-grown lungs into pigs

Lab-grown lungs have been successfully placed in pigs for the first time. How long until we get to humans?

An anatomical drawing of lungs. Credit: Public domain/Big Think
Credit: Public domain/Big Think

Authors note: We’ve included an image of the lung development process that may be considered sensitive.


Twenty Americans die every day while waiting for an organ donation. Between a limited number of donors, the difficulties of finding a proper match, and the particulars of time and place, the task of finding the right organ is often as difficult as it is pressing.   

This becomes even trickier in the case of lungs. Uniquely among organ donation, in cases where the donor's lung is not the proper size for the recipient, an adjustment must be made to make it fit the chest cavity, which increases the risk of complication. 

In cases where the donation does work, the recipient of the new lung is then put on immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives to assure their immune system doesn’t notice the large organs that aren’t native to the body and attack them. Despite this, symptoms of chronic rejection occur in half of all patients.  

A new study, however, offers us a glimpse at a world where organ shortages and rejection are a thing of the past.

Pigs with lab-grown lungs survive


Diagram of the fluidic system shows the microfluidic and pumping system. OS, oxygen sensor. (Nichols et al. Sci. Transl. Med)  

In a study published in Science Translational Medicine by Joan E. Nichols of the University of Texas and 26 others, lab-grown lungs were tailor-made for and transplanted into four unlucky pigs.

To grow these lungs, the researchers first built protein frameworks. They did this by taking a pig’s lung and blasting it clean of cells with a combination of detergents and sugars. This framework, which was not the first of its kind, was different from previous versions in that certain sugars were added to promote the stability of the proteins that remained.

These protein frameworks were then sunk into a nutrient vat. The researchers then added cells from the pigs that were to receive the new lungs and allowed the organs to grow for a month. The Franken-lungs were then transplanted into the pigs. The animals were later euthanized at different points in time to track the progress of the new lungs' integration into the body.


Left: the position of the pulmonary artery (Pa) and pulmonary vein (pv) in the organ chamber. Right: The new lungs are removed from the nutrient vat. (Nichols et al. Sci. Transl. Med)

In less than two weeks, the new lungs had begun to create the intricate system of blood vessels needed to work effectively. At the two-month point, when the last pig was killed and autopsied, there was no sign that the pigs were rejecting the new organs and the integration of the new lungs was progressing well. 

Could the pigs breathe?

"We do know that the animals had 100 percent oxygen saturation, as they had one normal functioning lung," study author Joaquin Cortiella said in a university news release. "Even after two months, the bioengineered lung was not yet mature enough for us to stop the animal from breathing on the normal lung and switch to just the bioengineered lung."

What’s the good news? 

This is the first step to demonstrating that lab-grown organs can be placed in the body and grow without rejection. In previous experiments, lab-grown lungs were unable to integrate into the cardiovascular system properly. These lungs did connect to the circulatory system, but not the pulmonary arteries, which would enable them to get oxygen into the blood.

Perhaps most amazingly, the risk of rejection is reduced dramatically with these lungs as the cells of the pigs that received them were used to make them. In a sense, the pigs were given their own lungs through this procedure. 

If this could be done in humans, waiting lists and the horrors of the body rejecting an organ would be a thing of the past as lab-grown organs take up the role that donated ones formerly held—or failed to.

What’s the grain of salt?

The pigs in this study were killed no more than two months after the donation to see how the lungs integrated themselves into the body. No evidence assures us this treatment would work long term. Likewise, there were only four pigs used in the study and more research is needed to demonstrate the effectiveness of the procedures. 

After that has been demonstrated, we’ll have to move over from pigs to people. Then we can look forward to a good decade of human trials before it becomes accepted medicine. This means you aren’t likely to get a new lung that was grown in a vat for some time. 

While lab-grown organs are still a way off, their potential is limitless. The days of dying while waiting for a donor may soon be a thing of the past as custom-made organs come out of labs and into operating rooms. While this is still the stuff of science fiction, it is moving ever closer to reality.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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