GALVESTON, Texas - A little pig named Harry living in a laboratory in Galveston has made a medical breakthrough that could eventually save countless lives.
Harry has become the first patient surgically implanted with a laboratory-built lung. And he's doing just fine.
"We build lungs here," said Dr. Joan Nichols of UTMB's Galveston National Laboratory. "That's pretty much what it's become in the last six months or so, is a little factory to build lungs."
UTMB medical researchers have spent more than a year removing lungs from dead animals – including humans – and basically stripping out all the cells, leaving nothing but the elastic protein structure that's essentially the lung's skeleton. Then they remove lung cells from living creatures and put them into the old skeletons, creating new lungs.
"It's like engineering a building," explained Dr. Joaquin Cortiella, the director of UTMB's Laboratory of Regenerative and Nano Medicine. "You basically have a scaffold and then you build on top of that to create the building."
They've used this process to create not only animal lungs, but also human lungs. Harry's healthy recovery from surgery indicates the experiment works and opens up the prospect of implanting new laboratory-built lungs into people.
"It's the first time it's ever been done, where we've taken a lung and it's inside of the lung cavity of this pig," Cortiella said.
Their work could vastly expand the number of organs available for patients seeking transplants, especially children, Cortiella said. His experience in pediatric medicine is part of what drove him into this research, because he saw babies dying from lung ailments.
"I also have lung disease," Cortiella said. "I have pulmonary fibrosis. Breathing is a difficult thing for me at times. And so, for me, I appreciate the fact that there are not enough lungs out there to give to everybody who needs them.
"And so, if we develop something that can actually be tailor-made for somebody – or at least, have something available that we can transplant into people that are on the waiting list – the less people will die waiting for them," he said.
The pig with the implanted lung is healthy, but doctors said they will have to euthanize him for further research.
The researchers have tried using synthetic materials instead of what they call "the skeleton of a lung" taken from other animals, but none of them have worked. Still, Nichols believes doctors may eventually make replacement organs with 3-D printers.
"Someday?" she said. "Someday, we are going to use these techniques to bio-engineer organs for people that need them."