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What Is an Artificial Organ?

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  • Written By: Christina Whyte
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 11 March 2014
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An artificial organ is any human-made or developed organ intended for transplant into a living body. This includes devices such as prostheses and cochlear implants, but the ultimate goal of artificial organ research and development is fully functional created organs that can be integrated into the body which fully replaces the natural organ and remains functional for a lifetime. Many steps have been taken towards this goal, and it is very likely that the field will continue to change and develop.

Previously, an artificial organ would be created completely out of synthetic material, such as plastics or metals. These mechanical organs had some problems, such as difficulty replacing all the functions of a biological organ and a tendency to only work on a temporary basis. A significant amount of current research focuses on biological or hybrid bio-mechanical material and processes.

Artificial organ growth and/or creation research is an interdisciplinary effort. It involves scientists from fields such as medicine, cellular biology, nanotechnology, engineering, and informatics. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine is another important area of research. It is a relatively new field which is focused on manipulating and creating living cells, often using stem cells.

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There is a very high demand for organs for transplant, which exceeds the supply of organs from people who wish to donate organs. This demand will be greatly eased when an artificial organ can be used instead of a donated organ. This will save many lives and prevent a great deal of suffering because people in need of organ transplants sometimes wait for years or die before an organ is available, depending on the organ needed and the country in question.

The number of organs and other body parts and cells that can be created is steadily increasing. Most of this work is still in the early stages of development, in which cells and tissue can be created but a fully functional artificial organ cannot. Some research has progressed further, including the growth of an entire rat heart and working fetal-sized human kidneys. Researchers have also developed machines based on ink jet printers that can print healthy human skin cells, which will be very useful for burn victims and people with other large skin injuries.

A great deal of testing will be done in the future before this technology is routinely used for humans in need of new organs. Some of this research is still conceptual, and some has reached the stage of clinical trials. Researchers in 2011 estimated that it should take only another decade or two before some types of bio-engineered organs are used in transplants, but it is difficult to tell because the work is so new and discoveries are made all the time.

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