Growing new lungs in Galveston

GALVESTON, Texas – Wheezing, chronic coughing, trouble breathing.

For people with severe lung disease, the symptoms don’t go away and they can be deadly.

Researchers in Galveston are hard at work on a revolutionary medical breakthrough.

The local researchers are growing new organs inside a Galveston lab.

The idea started almost as a competition. Growing cells in a lab is one thing, but building an entire organ that works with the human body is jumping way ahead.

"We then decided no one's looking at the lung, why not the lung? And everybody says hey you're nuts! So we went ahead and did it anyway," Dr. Joaquin Cortiella, a pediatric anesthesiologist at UTMB, said.

Over lunch, egging each other on about who could do it better, Joan Nichols, a professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at UTMB, and Cortiella ended up with a few theories.

"Kind of like that little brother kind of thing that says to you in a dare, do you think you can really do this and how could you? That's exactly how the process started," Nichols said.

That's all the push they needed. The blueprint was invented right then on a paper napkin.

Now, they're taking animal lungs, stripping them of all cells, leaving only the shape, and then implanting them with cells they hope will continue to grow once inside the recipient.

In August, they became the first team to transplant the engineered lungs into a pig. Two weeks post-transplant, the engineered lung developed the blood vessels it needs to survive, which could be good news for humans.

"I really think it will work! Based on what we saw in the animals as the time went longer and longer, we saw these tissues continue to develop so at first ... I'm not kidding you, I'm not going to tell you that we bio-engineered an organ and it went in and it was perfect, those tissues had to continue development in the animal, develop blood vessels, grow with the animal," Nichols said.

The lungs still have to be able to produce oxygen to the whole body for a lifetime. To prove it can work, the team needs more time for funding, trials and research.

Cortiella estimates the first recipient is another 10 years away. Nobody is more anxious than him.

His passion for the project runs deep. During his work, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. It's an untreatable lung disease that has devastating effects on people's lives. His prognosis will take him to the transplant list, eventually.

"I said, you know one of these days I'm going to be looking at you and you're going to be transplanting one of these things into me," Cortiella said.

He, along with many others, hope to see that day.