What if instead of waiting for a heart transplant, your doctor told you he or she would build you a new one from scratch? That might sound like science fiction, but it’s closer to reality than you might think.
On Tuesday, several of the region’s top scientists gathered at the Harvard Club of Boston to discuss the viability of creating organs and other tissues in the laboratory, during a HUBweek presentation titled “The Organ Generation.”
Their wide-ranging conversation bounced from the bioethics of organs made by human beings, to how self-driving cars — and the fewer traffic fatalities they promise — might affect the organ donor pipeline. The participants included Dr. Kevin “Kit” Parker, who has been working on tissue engineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Joining him were Dr. Harald Ott, who has focused on whole-organ regeneration at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Regenerative Medicine; Dr. George Church, a pioneer of genomic engineering and synthetic biology at Harvard and MIT; and Dr. David Kolesky, of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, who has been working on 3-D printing of vascular structures and tissues in his lab.
Moderator Sharon Begley, senior science writer with the health-and-science website STAT, reminded attendees of the grim statistics that motivate researchers: In the 90 minutes allocated to the panel, nine people in the United States would be added to the national transplant waiting list of 116,000 people. During that time, one patient would die.
HUBweek, now in its third year, was founded by The Boston Globe, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its many events, which run through Oct. 15, feature entrepreneurs, scientists, and journalists, as well as video projections, music, and live art performances.
At Tuesday’s Harvard Club session, Parker said his work was inspired, in part, by his own experience. His daughter, now 9, was born with a slight heart murmur, and he’s drawn inspiration from their visits to the New England Aquarium, where he’s marveled at how a jellyfish pulses its body and a stingray flaps its wings.