The US government is beginning to make more of an overt show of supporting tissue engineering, cryobiology, and other areas that can help move the needle in the field of organ transplantation, as demonstrated by today's White House Organ Summit. It will take some time to see how this pans out; typically the immediate outcome of this sort of public-private partnership is that it becomes easier for private and philanthropic initiatives at the cutting edge to raise funds for projects that can advance the state of the art. Familiarity with the field and its goals spreads, and that helps, as fundraising is always slower when you have to start with an explanation of the basics of what it is you are actually doing. Government funding sources tend to get directly involved only in the much less risky and much later stages of development, however, and that funding typically has much more to do with delivery of existing technology than implementation of new technology. You can look back at comparable US government efforts from past decades, such as the nanotechnology initiative back in 2004, and draw your own conclusions.
For biotechnology, one high level goal for the next twenty years is to generate a much larger and more reliably, high-quality supply of organs and tissues for transplantation. That could be achieved to some degree through better storage methodologies, such as reversible vitrification that would allow indefinite storage of large tissue sections, or through improvements in the ability to repair and make use of donor organs that are presently rejected, perhaps using decellarization approaches presently under development. Further down the line, constructing organs to order from the starting point of cells, preferably a patient's own cells, will completely remove limits on the availability of tissues for transplantation, but a lot of work remains to be accomplished in order to reach that goal. Still, there are many plausible options for near-future development when it comes to making the present situation incrementally better.
The New Organ initiative, run by the Methuselah Foundation, is one of a number of non-profits and advocacy efforts that are each independently focused on progress in tissue engineering. Another organization active in this field and mentioned here today is the Organ Preservation Alliance, for example. These groups are focused on a range of technologies that could reduce the waiting lists and risks for transplants in one way or another. Today, tissue engineering advocates are using the White House meeting on organ shortage issues as a springboard to announce a range of initiatives. This is the way publicity works: it always helps to stand beside the biggest megaphone in the room. For my money, the greater sign of progress is activity in the non-profit sector, the growth in advocacy, rather than purely government initiatives. The leadership here is provided by the non-profits and the advocates. Government agencies only follow years down the line, when the crowds grow large enough - so in a way it is reassuring to see that we seem to have reached that point in the development cycle.
There are currently more than 120,000 people on the waiting list for an organ in the United States. Every 10 minutes, someone is added to the national waiting list for a life-saving organ transplant. This is despite advances in clinical science and medical innovation over the last decade and widespread recognition by Americans that organ donation and transplantation make a real difference in people's lives. Twenty-two people die every day in the United States while waiting for a life-saving transplant.
We must and can do more. The good news is that reducing the organ waiting list is a problem that can be solved - and that's why today, the Obama Administration and dozens of companies, foundations, universities, hospitals, and patient advocacy organizations are taking steps to change that by announcing a new set of actions that will build on the Administration's efforts to improve outcomes for individuals waiting for organ transplants and support for living donors.
NASA, in partnership with the nonprofit Methuselah Foundation's New Organ Alliance, is seeking ways to advance the field of bioengineering through a new prize competition. The Vascular Tissue Challenge offers a $500,000 prize to be divided among the first three teams that successfully create thick, metabolically-functional human vascularized organ tissue in a controlled laboratory environment. Competitors must produce vascularized tissue that is more than .39 inches (1 centimeter) in thickness and maintains more than 85 percent survival of the required cells throughout a 30-day trial period. Teams must demonstrate three successful trials with at least a 75 percent success rate to win an award. In addition to the laboratory trials, teams also must submit a proposal that details how they would further advance some aspect of their research through a microgravity experiment that could be conducted in the U.S. National Laboratory on the International Space Station.
The new challenge was announced as part of White House Organ Summit, which highlighted efforts to improve outcomes for individuals waiting for organ transplants and support for living donors. In a related initiative, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, announced a follow-on prize competition in partnership with the New Organ Alliance and the Methuselah Foundation that will provide researchers the opportunity to conduct research in microgravity conditions. CASIS will provide one team up to $200,000 in flight integration support costs, along with transportation to the ISS National Laboratory, support on station and return of experimental samples to Earth.
Today, on the shoulders of recent progress suggesting that true organ cryobanking for the first time may be within reach and in partnership with the Thiel Foundation, Association of Organ Procurement Organizations, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society for Cryobiology, and New Organ Alliance, the Organ Preservation Alliance is launching:
1) A National Roadmap to Organ Banking Program to develop a consensus national strategy to advance organ and tissue preservation technologies, announced by the White House.
2) The official report from the year long NSF-funded "beta technology roadmapping process" with participation from world leading scientists, physicians and government.
3) A follow-up Dept. of Defense funded Complex Tissue Cryobanking Analysis and Report Process, reflecting the conclusions of the recent workshop at the West Point Military Academy with DARPA and others on the topics of Organs On-Demand and Biological Time control.
4) A companion Global Summit on Organ Banking through Converging Technologies in partnership with the Center for Engineering in Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard/MIT, announced by the White House.
5) A Breakthrough Ideas in Organ Banking Hackathon Program to bring together teams of young scientists, engineers and technology entrepreneurs working on solving the remaining challenges, announced by the White House.
Through these programs and others, scientists, surgeons and leaders are coming together from all over the world to work on the mission to save millions of lives through enabling breakthroughs in complex tissue cryopreservation and transforming transplant, trauma, and regenerative medicine.