Doctors may be able to replace damaged hearts and kidneys using their patients’ own stem cells, according to a study published Monday by scientists from Monash University in Australia.
The study identified a stem-cell protein called Meox1, which directs muscle growth in a tiny tropical zebrafish. Meox1 governs how the fish regulate their growing muscles and scientists think a similar process could eventually be used to one day grow human organs.
“My lab is exploring one of last frontiers of developmental biology – how organ growth is regulated by stem cells,” Dr. Peter Currie, a professor of regenerative medicine at Monash University who led the research, said in a press statement. “If we’re ever going to grow complete organs in the laboratory or directly in a patient’s body, we have to know how to grow them properly.”
Researchers hope that growing these replacements could help overcome a severe shortage of donor organs for transplant. Currently, a patient’s immune system can reject and attack some transplanted donor organ. Growing an entirely new organ could be a lot healthier for patients since the replacement hearts or kidneys would be made of the patient’s own stem cells.
Currie says that he doesn’t know how long it will be until scientists can grow replacement organs in a lab, but thanks to this discovery, it is “closer now to science fact than fiction.”
“Prior to our work in this field, we didn’t even know that these growth-specific stem cells existed or how they were used,” Currie said. “Just knowing that they exist leads us to the possibility of orchestrating them, controlling them, or reactivating them to regrow damaged tissue.”
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