The “Ghost Heart” Could Be the Answer For Those Waiting For a New Heart

More than 3,200 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant in the United States, and some won’t survive the wait. Last year, 340 people died before a new heart was found. What’s the solution? Doris Taylor, Director of Regenerative Medicine Research at the Texas Heart Institute, says taking a pig heart, soaking it in an ingredient commonly found in shampoo to wash away the cells until you’re left with a protein scaffold that is to a heart what two-by-four framing is to a house. Then, inject the “ghost heart” with hundreds of millions of blood or bone-marrow stem cells from a person who needs a heart transplant, place it in a bioreactor — a box with artificial lungs and tubes that pump oxygen and blood into it — and wait as the ghost heart begins to mature into a new, beating human heart. Taylor has been working on this very thing for years, first using rat hearts, then pig hearts, and human hearts. She has grown rat and pig hearts, but so far not human hearts. That’s her goal. It's most likely years off, but it's a pretty sure bet it will happen. That means future transplant patients won’t have to take anti-rejection medication and put up with the side effects, they won’t have to undergo dozens of heart biopsies, and they won’t have to worry about the pain, time and expense of a second transplant. "And the nice thing about this technology," Taylor says, "is that it will work with any organ or tissue. So it's not just about hearts. Kidneys, livers, lungs, pancreases — we’ll be growing those, too."