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Too Hard for Science? Off-the-Shelf Organs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Instead of waiting around for organs to become available, have shelves of them instantly ready

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don’t think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.  

The scientist: Anthony Atala , director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and chair of the department of urology at Wake Forest University.  

The idea: Instead of waiting for potentially life-saving donor organs to become available — time that many patients might not have to spare — Atala imagines having storehouses of living organs of all shapes and sizes immediately ready for transplantation. "You can imagine having shelves with small, medium, large, extra-large organs, all at the ready," he says.  

Increasingly, tissue engineers are creating more complex body parts. One can then imagine keeping organs alive in " bioreactors " that feed them nutrients and oxygen, all stored at a medical facility that patients can visit for surgery or that can ship them off when needed. "Off-the-shelf organs would be the end goal I’d see — the holy grail," Atala says.  

The problem: Although researchers are growing more intricate tissue structures, "creating solid organs with a mix of different cell types is still a major challenge," Atala says. "These cells also need nutrition to survive, which means that you have to provide them with vasculature, with blood vessels. So we are still developing ways to make such complex structures that can function normally."  

The greatest problem with the idea of a living off-the-shelf organ, however, is making sure it can match any patient without getting rejected. "Ultimately, you’d want a universal donor organ just like you have universal blood donors, but we don’t know a way to engineer cells to be universal donor cells," Atala says.  

The solution? A number of techniques under development suggest it should be possible for tissue engineers to create solid organs. For instance, they might grow such three-dimensionally complex structures by seeding biodegradable scaffolds with cells, or with " bio-printers " that manufacture organs by laying down cells layer by layer in desired patterns. "It’s a tough challenge, but I think it’s doable," Atala says.  

However, no one is exploring the idea of a living universal donor organ, as far as Atala knows. "The idea is outlandish, but I’ve been working in the field of regenerative medicine for 20 years, and a lot of things we thought were impossible back then are possible now," he says. "Science is a matter of perseverance."  



If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, e-mail me at

Follow Too Hard for Science? on Twitter by keeping track of the #2hard4sci hashtag.

About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. tharter 3:56 pm 07/1/2011

    I don’t have any idea why this is in "Too Hard for Science." It is perhaps arguably science but at this point is more like complex tricky technology. It isn’t ‘too hard’ at all, more like inevitable. It may be quite a bit further off than Ray Kurzweil fantasizes, but all that is required are a few million man-years of hard work and it will happen.

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  2. 2. scientific earthling 12:44 am 07/3/2011

    This is unnecessary science. In an extremely overpopulated world we do not need to extend life. Those unable to survive need to make room for an ever increasing mass of humanity, generally less literate than themselves. Lifespans have started declining, as has now been confirmed by the USA. This is a good thing, other advanced nations still have lifespan increases, but these are temporary, the result of a high proportion of their population being educated. This is unsustainable faced with mass migrations of illiterate, religious populations. When I posted that lifespans would decline a couple of years ago, I was opposed by the majority. Now I am telling you average intelligence and ability to rationalise is also going to decrease.

    Educated people are also more humane and compassionate which means they are unable to defend themselves from the ignorant invading their nation. Diluting their numbers, opinions, lifestyles and beliefs. France and Britain already have huge populations opposing the teaching of science on the grounds that it is at odds with their religion.

    Populations will keep doubling every 60 years, sustenance will be unavailable, famine will follow. The destruction of the biosphere will compound the issue and extinction is eminent. Natural selection will have eliminated the species that upset the balance of the biosphere.

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