January 8, 2020

There’s a chance that Hans Clevers from Utrecht will soon be permanently changing the world. The scientist and his team are the brain behind the revolutionary technology for lab-grown organs that, probably next month, will be tested on a person for the first time. If this transplant proves successful then it can change the lives of countless people all over the world.

Around 10 years ago a very special technology was developed in a lab in Utrecht: researcher Hans Clevers and his team discovered how you can grow an organ outside a patient’s body. Something that all the world believed was impossible was made possible within the walls of the Hubrecht Institute at Utrecht Science Park. 

Following a great number of tests with mice, it’s now the turn of humans: the pioneering discovery from Utrecht will soon be tested on a person in the lab of researcher Mamoru Watanabe in Tokyo. A number of Japanese patients will be undergoing mini intestinal transplants there. If these transplants prove successful, then Clevers’ technology may possibly change the world forever. 

The technology was developed in Clevers’ lab some years ago. ‘We discovered how you can take a piece of intestinal tissue and get the stem cells contained in this to divide by themselves. This results in a mini-organ or “organoid” that you can put back into the larger organ in the body,’ the researcher explains. ‘One of these organoids can ensure that the failing liver or damaged kidney in question can completely repair itself.’

Clevers’ organ-growing technology could ensure that in the future the terribly long waiting lists for new organs are significantly shortened. Someone who needs an organ will then no longer be dependent on someone else’s death. ‘We can grow some intestinal or liver tissue from healthy volunteers to create organoids and then freeze them. If a patient needs an organoid because one of his or her ‘big’ organs is failing, we click on the list to see which donor is a good match. Then we transplant this organoid into the patient. The patient’s organ recovers while the donor is happily sitting at home on the sofa watching TV.’

Probably in one month from now a number of mini intestinal sections will be placed in the body of the first Japanese patient, which should lead to the man’s diseased intestine healing itself. There is a reason why such a transplant operation is not taking place in the Netherlands. ‘The legislation is so strict that we probably wouldn’t be able to test this in Europe,’ says Clevers. ‘Moreover, it costs a few million euros to set up a clean room, an extremely clean working environment in which people work in protective suits. That’s necessary for this process.’ The rules are strict in Japan, too, but more things are possible there. The team has always had links to this country, so contracting out the operation to Japan is a logical step.

One of these organoids can ensure that the failing liver or damaged kidney in question can completely repair itself.

Hans Clevers
What will happen if the transplant in Tokyo goes wrong? ‘There is a chance of this happening, because the operation has so many different aspects,’ says Clevers. ‘But the advantage is that it doesn’t involve an acute patient and there is no extreme haste as is the case with a normal transplant. They have plenty of time to sort everything out. Rejection won’t be an issue because they have already ensured a good match. But it will still be a challenge to carry out the entire process in one go.’

If the transplant is successful then it will be a breakthrough, as Clevers is well aware. ‘Then it would – indeed – be a breakthrough that originates in Utrecht,’ the scientist modestly admits. The first transplant will probably take place at the end of February or the beginning of March.

Source: AD by Emma Thies