The Technology Behind Organ Transplantation

By: Tony Wang

The recent rise of organ transplants is considered by many to be one of the most groundbreaking developments in modern medicine and technology. However, despite its popularity, very few people have a comprehensive understanding as to how the process actually works; this is primarily due to the fact that it involves a great deal of bioengineering, and, as of recently, computer science knowledge. As such, in this article, we will be taking a closer look at the process of organ transplantations.

Flickr @ Global Panorama

To start things off, let’s first define what bioengineering is exactly. Bioengineering is commonly defined as the application of life and physical sciences, math, and engineering principles to design or improve medical devices and/or equipment. Some examples of bioengineering include creating artificial joints, vascular stents, and other implants and bodily assistants.

Now that we’ve covered that, let’s look at some of the biomedical tools and procedures used in the various types of organ transplantations. So, when a recipient is undergoing a heart/lung transplant, they must be kept alive while their old organ is removed before the new one is transplanted. In the past, this was quite challenging, as there was no suitable device for this task. However, nowadays, this is no longer an issue, as we now have a device known as a cardiopulmonary bypass machine. The cardiopulmonary bypass machine was developed through the combination of medical knowledge regarding the heart, as well as several different engineering topics, such as fluid dynamics and nanotechnology. This machine temporarily takes over the function of the heart and lungs during surgery, maintaining the circulation of blood, as well as the oxygen content of the patient's body.

A second procedure commonly used during organ transplants is known as dialysis. Dialysis is the process of removing excess water, toxins, and other fluids from the blood of people whose kidneys can no longer naturally perform these functions. This is typically done through the usage of a dialysis machine; a dialysis machine filters a patient’s blood through a dialyzer, which is, essentially, a device that functions as an artificial kidney. This process is utilized most commonly during kidney transplants in order to allow the patient’s body to continue filtering liquids while the surgery is being conducted.

Flickr @ San Jose Public Library

Another common type of organ transplant involves the transplantation of stem cells into a patient's body. These stem cells are typically delivered into the patient’s bloodstream through a tube called a central venous catheter. With the usage of this biomedical device, surgeons are able to transfer stem cells through the patient’s blood and into their bone marrow. One could compare this entire process to getting a blood transfusion.

Now that we’ve covered a few of the procedures and pieces of technology behind organ transplants, let’s take a look at what the future of organ transplants will behold. At the moment, there is currently a large amount of research being conducted on bioprinting essential organs, such as livers, kidneys, lungs, corneas, skin, and even pancreases. Bioprinting is a procedure that, essentially, enables cellular structures to be made from a biomaterial composed of bioinks loaded with stem cells. The way that this works is that, once created, this biomaterial is deposited in layers into the patient’s body in order to create skin, tissue or even an organ. Many scientists say that the future of organ transplants lies in bioprinting; as such, it makes sense that there are many bioprinting studies and projects currently being conducted across the world. Two of the most notable leaders in this research are the USC Stem Cell Initiative and the Rice University Stem Cell Lab. And while we don’t have a perfect method just yet, bioprinting projects are constantly growing, both in complexity and scale, and each new project brings us one one-step closer to having a fully functional and viable solution to replacing missing organs.

With that being said, it’s important that we keep our expectations grounded; there is still a long way to go until these lab grown cells can be turned into fully functional 3D organs. We can only wait and see how these methods will develop as time goes on. One can only imagine how organ transplants will be conducted a few decades from now.


No changes were made, , License: Creative Commons Legal Code

No changes were made, , License: Creative Commons Legal Code

What Did You Learn?


1. What is kidney failure, and what problems can it cause?

Typically, the body’s kidneys are responsible for ridding the body of unwanted toxins, waste products, and excess fluids by filtering blood. However, when an individual’s kidneys fail, their body becomes unable to continue cleaning their body’s blood, which can result in their body becoming chemically imbalanced. This can cause several severe health issues, such as nausea, high blood pressure, and vomiting. Furthermore, it can, in some extreme cases, even result in death. As such, it is important that it is dealt with.

2. How is biotech different from bioengineering?

Bioengineering is often defined as the usage of sciences, math, and engineering to design or improve medical devices and equipment. Some examples of bioengineering include creating artificial joints, vascular stents, and other implants and bodily assistants. Biotech, on the other hand, is often defined as the use of cellular and molecular biology to develop instruments for mainly food science, agriculture, and medicine. Some examples of biotechnology include the development of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), medical nanotechnology, and other creations on a more microscopic scale.

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