Workers in a suburban Minneapolis lab are transforming pig livers to look and act like a human ones, part of scientists' long quest to ease the United States' transplant shortage by bioengineering replacement organs.
"So, this is our opportunity to take our bioengineered liver, house that external to the patient and essentially provide liver dialysis to the patient,." said Jeff Ross, CEO of Miromatrix.
First, they dissolve the cells in the pig livers that made the organ function, leaving ghostly semi-translucent scaffolds floating in large jars.
To complete the metamorphasis, they infuse those shells with human cells from donated livers that went un-transplanted.
Those living cells move into the scaffolding's nooks and crannies to restart the organ's functions.
"Because we remove all the cells from that pig organ. The body, our bodies don't see it as a pig organ," explains Ross.
That's a bold claim.
The CEO added "Once we're able to demonstrate, that is not only to provide that to the acute liver failure patients, but then that opens up us to go for the fully transplantable and have the faith that that's going to provide the functionality immediately for those patients."
"Having a liver assist device is going to give us the opportunity to save more people. Use few precious scarce resources we do have for others and is going to actually allow more people to be alive," says Dr. Sander Florman, a transplant chief at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, one of several hospitals already planning to participate in the liver study.
"To the average person, this may sound like science fiction, but I can tell you that even to the average transplant surgeon, or maybe not so average transplant surgeon, it still sounds a little bit like science fiction. But this is an incredible time, it's a new era," Florman said.
"We have gene editing. We have cloning. We have all kinds of things. Bioengineered kidneys, especially the way a company like Miromatrix envisions this, might be a reality. We were really at the precipice where we could actually envision this could work. A bioengineered organ, at least in this context, is a scaffold, " he added.
Dr. Amit Tevar, a transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centerm who is not involved with Miromatrix cautions that the planned outside-the-body testing would be only an early first step.
A Maryland man lived two months after receiving the world's first heart transplant from a pig last January - an animal genetically modified so its organs didn't trigger an immediate attack from the human immune system.
The FDA is considering whether to allow additional xenotransplantation experiments using kidneys or hearts from gene-edited pigs.
Bioengineering organs is a markedly different approach -- no special pigs required, just leftover organs from slaughterhouses.