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Houston Matters

UTMB Researchers Accomplish Significant Stride in Bio-Engineered Organs

Doctors Joan Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella transplanted bio-engineered lungs into pigs


Two doctors who work for the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are making significant strides in the field of bio-engineered organs and they talked to Houston Matters about their research.

Doctors Joan Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella have successfully transplanted bioengineered lungs into adult pigs.

Dr. Joaquin Cortiella (left) and Dr. Joan Nichols (right) talked to Houston Matters about their research in the field of bio-engineered organs.

To produce a bio-engineered lung, a support scaffold is needed that meets the structural needs of a lung.

In this case, a support scaffold was created using a lung from an unrelated animal that was treated using a special mixture of sugar and detergent to eliminate all cells and blood in the lung, leaving only the scaffolding proteins or skeleton of the lung behind. This is a lung-shaped scaffold made totally from lung proteins.

All of the pigs that received a bioengineered lung stayed healthy. As early as two weeks post-transplant, the bioengineered lung had established the strong network of blood vessels needed for the lung to survive.

A peculiar genesis

The genesis of the research is quite peculiar. Dr. Nichols, who is associate director of the Galveston National Laboratory UTMB-Galveston and professor of Internal Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, explained that she and Dr. Cortiella, who founded the Riddle Institute for Regenerative Medicine and is an Associate Professor of Pediatric Anesthesia at UTMB Health, jotted down the principles of the experiment on a napkin while having lunch around 2001.

This is the napkin on which Dr. Nichols and Dr. Cortiella jotted down the principles of their research during a lunch they had around 2001.

Nichols detailed that they wrote about things such as what cells to use in the research and how to give the organ a structure that shaped it like a lung. “It was kind of a, hypothetically, if you’re gonna do this, how would you do it? And we wrote it all out.”

The experiment Nichols and Cortiella have most recently worked on was a feasibility project with a few animals for which they produced bioengineered lungs. They transplanted the lungs into the animals and, over time, monitored how the tissues were surviving and how the animal was dealing with the organ.

Dr. Cortiella says what makes the experiment successful is the fact there hasn't been a rejection of the organ, or an infection.

Lung in a Bioreactor
A bioengineered human lung in a bioreactor at UTMB in Galveston.

Next steps

As for the next steps of their research, Dr. Nichols notes that, once they get the funding they need, they would like to conduct a long time survival study by sending the animals who received a bio-engineered organ to a farm for six months or a year. After that period of time, they would bring the animals back to the lab and test the functionality of the organs.

Dr. Nichols and Dr. Cortiella differ in their assessment of how long it could take for human clinical trials to start. Dr. Nichols says it could be between 10 and 15 years, while Dr. Cortiella thinks it could happen sooner, in five to 10 years. Both agree the funding would be a key factor to accelerate the research.

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