Ghost Heart is the medical miracle that millions have prayed for; well, not exactly. It is however, a giant step closer for millions in need of new organs. The key to the future of organ transplantation sits with Doris A. Taylor, Director of Regenerative Medicine Research for the Center of Cell and Organ Biotechnology at the Texas Heart Institute. Advances in stem cell research has progressed over the last four decades. The introduction of such research has led to medical miracles that are saving lives in the fields of disease, illness and transplantation. Taylor, world-renowned medical researcher for nearly two decades, has led that charge at St. Luke’s Medical Center with a focus on regenerative medicine.
The beginning of regenerative medicine started with the development of organ transplantation. The earliest transplants of human parts started with skin grafting in ancient Roman history. However, modern transplantation of more vital organs have only been successful since the 1960’s. Due to an extremely limited availability of human organs, science has focused on artificial devices. The artificial heart, first created by doctors Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley, opened the door to future research possibilities and the development of The Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s in Houston, Texas. The Heart Institute has been a world leader in cardiovascular advances and research. Cell research conducted at the institute has been the foundation of today’s cardio technology. These efforts paved the way for the development of the ghost heart which has revolutionized the future of organ transplantation.
Fundamentally, the heart is the engine of the human body. This particular engine is a complex device composed of muscle, blood vessels, and arteries. Over the last ten years Dr. Taylor has worked on methods of decellularization of the heart and in 2008 she perfected the method. Utilizing common detergent chemicals, the vessels and cellular structures within the heart wash away. Using rodent and animal heart organs in her research, Taylor developed the method leaving behind a fresh new organ. The method is not exclusive to the heart and could be used in many other organs such as the kidney, lung, and liver. What is left is a modern-day miracle; a ghost heart or a ghost-like shell of an organ that, with modern advancements in medicine, can then be personalized for individuals in need of transplantation. Taylor injected donor blood and bone marrow into the existing shell; for reasons unknown by scientists the cells used to re-seed the heart took hold and knew exactly how to divide. Placing the organ in a bioreactor with artificially pumped oxygen and blood; the heart slowly started showing signs of life. After three days the new organ gave out electrical impulses and eventually started to beat on its own. This is the first step in creating a perfectly matched organ for transplantation using donated cells of the person receiving the transplant.
One of the most difficult aspects of organ transplantation is matching biological elements between donor and host to lower the risk of organ rejection. Many transplants fail due to body rejection of the new organ. Anyone receiving new organs must live on a strict regimen of anti-rejection medication for the rest of their lives in order to survive. Without it, the host body will fail. But with these methods come a whole new risk to the recipient. Anti-rejection drugs are harsh on the body, particularly the liver and kidneys. Leaving transplant recipients with risk of new organ failures. What Dr. Taylor has created is an organ that would not be rejected. The body would recognize the new organ as its own with the recipient’s own blood, cells, and vessels. However, the ghost heart is not yet the miracle of modern medicine that has cured the need for donors. Scientists have yet to develop a method to recreate the arteries and vessels within the organ. Dr. Taylor insists that science is not decades away from the last puzzle pieces, but merely years. Six years into the creation of the ghost heart; the medical possibilities are just that much closer to a cure.
Opinion by Kimberly Beller