Every year, thousands of people suffering from organ failure die while waiting for a new kidney, heart or lung. We’re still a long way from ending the shortage of donor organs — and some say self-driving cars could compound the problem by curbing the number of fatal car accidents — but new research adds to the hope that doctors might someday be able to replace failing organs with organs grown in the lab.

A team of researchers in Texas showed that bioengineered lungs could be implanted into pigs without triggering an immune reaction or causing other medical problems. Four pigs survived for as long as two months with the lab-made lungs — a result that buoyed the researchers.

“Whole organ transplants such as this had never been done before with a positive result,” said Joan Nichols, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and one of the researchers. “That was a very good first try.”
But the lungs weren’t capable of respiration. As explained in a paper published Aug. 1 in the journal Science Translational Medicine, each pig continued to breathe using its own right lung, its left lung having been replaced by a lab-grown one.

Creating functional lungs is one of many challenges facing scientists working to make bioengineered lungs an option for humans. The next major hurdle — and it’s a big one — will be getting the artificial lungs to actually work to oxygenate the blood.

“Once we’ve done that, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be able to produce two lungs that are capable for the animal to breathe,” said Joaquin Cortiella, director of the UTMB Lab of Tissue Engineering and Organ Regeneration and the paper’s senior author. Cortiella takes a special interest in the work because he suffers from the lung condition pulmonary fibrosis.

That feat could take some time.

“In my mind, we’re still probably 20 years away from a first in-man human-engineered lung,” said Laura Niklason, a professor of anesthesiology and biomedical engineering at Yale University who is working on bioengineered lungs as part of another team of researchers.