Innovations in Stem Cell Research: The Solution to Organ Trafficking?

| April 27, 2013 | 0 Comments

Recently, Harald Ott’s laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and was able to make a bio-engineered rat kidney.[1] In their experimental design, they exposed a mature rat kidney to detergents in order to wash away old parent cells, leaving only a web of proteins that constituted the original kidney. Then, by injecting endothelial and epithelial cells into the scaffold, they were able to regenerate a functional kidney. Upon transplantation into another rat, the engineered kidneys were less effective than natural ones, but regenerative medicine researchers said the field held huge promise. For patients suffering from renal failure, bio-engineered kidneys derived from patient-derived cells and regenerated for transplantation could provide an alternative, more effective treatment. The ability to regenerate entire organs from patient-derived cells would also eliminate the need for organ donors and, by extension, organ trafficking.

Illegal organ trafficking remains an issue in several countries, with developed countries demanding more organs than can be supplied domestically and developing nations that provide organs to meet these demands albeit, in my cases, illegally. According to the WHO, the organ trade takes advantage of the poorest and most vulnerable groups to whom several thousands of dollars seems proper compensation for an organ.[2] Indeed, many people who sell their organs are desperate for income and have no other means to earn it. This state of poverty poses several issues, since the income earned is temporary while their loss of an organ is permanent. Also, a recent report by Global Financial Integrity indicated that illegal organ trade is on the rise, estimating that it generates profits between $600 million and $1.2 billion per year with a span over many countries.[3]

This image differentiates between countries with high demand for organs and those willing to contribute supply.
(Source: Spiegal Online)

In order to combat the organ trade, then, effective alternatives are needed as soon as possible, and regenerative medicine appears to be one of the more viable options with breakthroughs such as those in the Ott laboratory. Gauging the efficacy of introducing regenerative medicine transplants, though, requires several considerations. Firstly, this field of science is still in its infancy, since this was the first successful attempt to make a fully functional organ. Also, the organ is very inefficient compared to natural organs. Secondly, the destruction of the illegal organ trade would eliminate a potential source of income for those in several developing countries marked as donor countries.[2] Although the transaction places a permanent physical burden on the seller, the income earned could be used to sustain his or her entire family for several years, depending of their location and economic status. Lastly, regenerative medicine might simply be inconvenient: growing an organ takes time, and having an organ readily available for a seller or donor can make the critical difference in saving a person’s life.

Although bio-engineered organs are an exciting breakthrough in the field of regenerative medicine, they might not be, then, perfect all-cure solutions to the rising demand in organ donations until they are perfected. Until then, the illegal organ trade will remain an ominous presence due to the accessibility of supply and high demand in developed countries.

Works Cited

[1] Song, Jeremy et. al., “Regeneration and experimental orthotopic transplantation of a bioengineered kidney.” Nature Medicine (2013), 1-8.
[2] Tazeen H., Jafar. n.d. “World Kidney Forum: Organ Trafficking: Global Solutions for a Global Problem.” American Journal Of Kidney Diseases 54, 1145-1157.
[3] Ambagtsheer, F., and W. Weimar. 2011. “A Criminological Perspective: Why Prohibition of Organ Trade Is Not Effective and How the Declaration of Istanbul Can Move Forward.” American Journal Of Transplantation 12, no. 3: 571-575.

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