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Organ transplants save many lives every year, but the system as it exists today is far from perfect. According to statistics from the United States Health Resources and Services Administration, twenty people die each day waiting for a transplant. Part of this has to do with the lack of organ donors, but the push for organ donation has its roots as a cultural problem as well. Even with an increase in donors, transplant recipients still deal with the risk of rejection, where their immune system treats the organ as a foreign object, and this can lead to a number of very serious health complications. 

Scientists and doctors around the globe have been trying to develop new ways to tackle this problem using modern biotechnology. Options range from 3D-printed organs using stem cells to genetically modifying pigs for cross-species transplantation. Not all of these options have made it into clinical trials yet, but some methods are further along than others. Most recently in late January, researchers in Japan have accomplished something that has never been done before by transplanting lab-grown heart muscle cells into a patient. This procedure was used to treat ischemic cardiomyopathy, a condition where clogged arteries cause heart muscles to stop working properly. 

Using pluripotent stem cells, cells taken from the patient that have been reprogrammed to become stem cells, the researchers induced them to become heart muscle cells. The cells were then deposited into degradable muscle sheets to help repair damaged tissue. This procedure is less invasive than a full heart transplant and, if this case goes according to plan, prevents the patient from needing a full heart transplant.  

Given the complicated nature of organ transplantation, from finding a donor to the surgery itself, this new method has the potential to disrupt the current transplant system. As this procedure was done as part of an ongoing clinical trial, the patient involved will be monitored for the next year to see how things progress. Already, the researchers hope to repeat this operation on nine more patients who suffer from the same condition over the next three years. 

While this technology doesn’t completely replace organ transplants, it helps to repair organs that have been damaged. Still though, it’s promising with this case because it means that other organs may be treated using the same method. Scientists are exploring the potential of pluripotent stem cells, and soon, we may see the 2020s as a new era of how we deal with failing organs.