Imagine if donating an organ was as easy as a 5-minute trip to the doctor’s office. Imagine if all you had to do was swab the inside of your cheek to get a couple of skin cells, and then send those cells off to grow into a liver or a kidney or a heart. Well, this just might be the direction that science is headed in.
Let’s take a look at how cells work. All the cells in your body have deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – that’s your genetic code, the blueprint that makes you you. DNA tells your blood cells to carry oxygen around your body, it tells your heart muscle cells to pump blood, and it tells your cells in saliva to digest the food you’re eating. More importantly, all the cells in your body have the exact same DNA – the same blueprint. Your blood cells, your liver cells, and your skin cells all have the same instructions. So how does this work – how do different cells have different functions?
All our cells start off as stem cells – cells that have the potential to become any cell in the body. These cells then specialize into specific cells. When stem cells develop into skin cells, for example, they turn “off” the genes in your DNA that have instructions for liver cells (as well as instructions for any other types of cell). This is called gene regulation. Each cell turns “off” all the genes it doesn’t need. This means that in your skin cells, instructions for how to make a liver cell (and instructions for making every other cell in your body) are still present – they’re just turned “off.” If we can figure out how to turn these genes back “on,” we could get a stem cell – a cell that can become anything!
Scientists are currently figuring out how to turn genes “on” to make these cells, which they call induced pluripotent stem cells. With these stem cells, we can grow any type of cells we need. For example, we can grow replacement cells to treat diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis. These stem cells are also very useful for drug testing.
We currently use stem cells to grow tissues (components of organs) for medical purposes, but we extract stem cells directly – from embryos, umbilical cords and bone marrow. These methods are either relatively difficult or controversial. However, if scientists could make stem cells themselves from simple skin cells, obtaining them could be as quick and easy as a simple cheek swab. This would make growing tissues, and even organs, much easier and more efficient.
The first successful generation of induced pluripotent stem cells in the lab was in 2007. However, scientists still have a long way to go in figuring out the details of this technique and how it can be applied to treating diseases. Though the “5-minute walk-in organ donation” is not something we will see in the near future, research into this field will hopefully allow us to save lives and foster a healthier society.