Top Docs 2011

From face transplants to computerized glasses that help blind people “see” to a groundbreaking development in the fight against Lou Gehrig’s disease, here are 14 stunning medical breakthroughs.

The Grow-Your-Own Organ

Photograph by Bruce Peterson

This decellularized pair of rat lungs can be reseeded with new cells to build a functional organ (Photograph by Bruce Peterson).

Need a new heart? Or kidney? Or liver? Within a decade it may be possible to simply give a blood sample and two months later receive a custom-grown organ that’s a perfect match. No waitlist, no possibility of rejection, no drugs. In September, Harald Ott and his organ bioengineering team at Mass General’s Center for Regenerative Medicine managed to transplant a specially grown lung into a rat, which survived for a week. That’s a pretty significant development for the team, which is using a technique called “perfusion decellularization” to customize almost any suitable donor organ and create a patient’s perfect match.

The technique involves “washing” a donor organ of its cells,until it becomes what’s known as a scaffold — a colorless organ blueprint. The scaffold is then placed in a bioreactor and repopulated with the patient’s blood cells, which have been reprogrammed to behave as stem cells. Right now, more than 110,000 people in the United States are on the organ transplant list and have to wait anywhere from six months to several years for an organ. Once they get one, they’re forced to down a costly daily cocktail of immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives to prevent rejection. Though bioengineered organs have yet to get to clinical stages, they have the potential to change the way the entire transplant system works.  — Leah Mennies