Ghost heart image by Doris Taylor

Right now, more than 3,200 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant in the United States. And other s are hoping for replacement kidneys, livers, lungs, and pancreases. We need spare parts.

Some of those waiting won’t make it, because an appropriate match won’t be available in time. Some will get a transplant, but it will be rejected by their body. It is reported that last year 340 people died before a new heart was found.

I saw a video clip (see bottom link) for what is being called a “ghost heart.” It is fascinating.  This ghost heart can be injected with a transplant recipient’s stem cells to grow a new heart.

Dr. Doris Taylor, director of regenerative medicine research at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, has been the scientist working on this.  She started with rat hearts, moved on to pig hearts and has successfully grown those. But not a human heart yet.

She starts by taking the heart – say a pig heart – and by soaking it in a solution, she washes away the cells (the ingredient is said to be something found in shampoos) until she is left with the ghost heart.

That is a kind of empty frame, a template of protein that can be injected with hundreds of millions of blood or bone-marrow stem cells from the person needing the transplant. (It seems that men and women differ in their stem cells, and age is also a factor.)

She puts that into a bioreactor and connects it to artificial lungs and tubes that pump oxygen and blood into it. Gradually, the ghost heart matures into a new, beating heart.

The whole process seems beautiful to me.

The new heart won’t be rejected because it was made using the recipient’s own stem cells.

Of course, human hearts to start the process are still needed to be donated, but this changes everything. Taylor says that it will work with any organ or tissue. It is not just about hearts.

I suppose there are still those opposed to this kind of research, but I can’t understand why in this case. The stem cells are being taken from the person who need the transplant. The heart is from a willing organ donor.

Are people still afraid that we are “playing God” when we do this? I don’t think its play at all, and I think it would be exactly what a God would hope we would become some day capable of doing.

Watch Replacing Body Parts on PBS. See more from NOVA scienceNOW.