Not Enough Organs — The Salamander Solution

The organ shortage is real here at home and around the world.   People aren’t becoming organ and tissue donors in the numbers that are necessary to drastically cut or eliminate the deaths caused by the lack of organs.  Each year for the last several years there have been around 28,000 transplants in the U.S., that number has remained static, Unfortunately the number of people who need organs continues to grow and right now that number is approaching 114,000.

In the United States we obtain organs for transplantation via what is called the “altruistic” method or “opt in.”   That means we depend on the goodness of people to become organ donors.  The problem is that less than 50 percent of Americans ever get around to becoming donors and the result is that from 6000 to 7,000 people die every year because there aren’t enough organs to go around.  Obviously something has got to change, soon!

There are many alternatives to altruism including mandatory organ donation, compensation or incentives or a combination of many.  I have long been a supporter of “Presumed consent” (PC) which is the reverse of altruism.  Under PC you are automatically considered a donor unless you “opt out.”

The problem we face with any of these proposed changes is that it would take some kind of government action to force a change and my political instincts tell me that the country just isn’t in the mood to hear the government or a bureaucracy tell them they “must” do something even if it saves lives.  Furthermore there isn’t even a whiff of a scent of a move to change the system.  Once in a while a state makes some changes but we need a massive federal change.   If PC were introduced as a possible change and it is the most likely of all the alternatives, it would take a very long time if ever to make it the law of the land.  And…even if such a change had congressional and presidential approval and endorsement I am positive that there would be an almost immediate court challenge that would delay implementation indefinitely.

Presumed consent isn’t going to happen in this country.  We can keep pushing for it but I just don’t see it happening.  The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) has been on the books since 1984 and even though the gap between organ supply and demand continues to widen there is no widely popular movement in congress or at the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) to change the system. There’s been talk, but no action and it is unlikely there will be any.  So where does that leave us.  Actually it leaves us with a lot of hope.

Some amazing things are happening in the area of regenerative medicine that could literally knock your socks off.  At the very heart of regenerative medicine are — the salamander and the newt.   They belong to the same amphibian family and they have the amazing ability to regrow organs.  I recently saw some time lapse photography of a salamander that had lost a leg and slowly over the period of several days it grew back (it’s in the link to the Atala video).  Researchers say, “If Salamanders can do it, why not humans?”  We’ll talk more about salamanders and newts later.

Anthony Atala is the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  He says, “Every thirty seconds a patient dies of diseases that could be prevented with tissue or stem cell replacement.”

That’s an amazing claim but then he is doing some pretty amazing things at Wake Forest. The first ever lab-grown organ, a bladder, to be implanted in a human was engineered by his team.  Additionally the team is developing fabrication technology that can “print” human tissue on demand.  Note I said “print” — the tissue will actually come out of a printer, similar to the one you have at home or in your office.  This link will take you to a video of Anthony Atala that is fascinating.

But – as the commercial says, “Wait…there’s more.”  There is so much going on in regenerative medicine that I can only touch on a few things here but enough, I hope, to get you as excited as I am about the potential for saving lives.

Stem cells are said to be the very basis of life. Unlike cells of the skin or the brain, which have narrowly defined functions, the possibilities with stem cells are endless.   Given the proper setting, stem cells can develop into specialized cells so in theory they could replace those cells we lose when we age or get sick.  They are known as “pluripotent.”

Five years ago in 2007, some mice with sickle cell anemia were cured by infusing them with cells created from their own skin and modified by gene-splicing techniques so that they no longer contained the sickle-cell gene.  While it worked on mice it can’t be used on people because of the potential for the cells to trigger cancer but…it’s a beginning.

Last year a private U.S. company launched a cell therapy trial that could repair spinal injuries. It uses some special cells made from embryonic stem cells.  Four patients have been treated but no results as of yet.

In Scotland a trial to treat stroke was launched last year, using special nerve cells.  The company involved says it is evaluating the safety of the treatment which has been given to several patients in very low doses.

While all of the trials are in the earliest stages at least we are having trials in humans.  You can be sure that in the next few years more trials will start and we’ll find out the true potential of stem cell therapy.

Some of the advancements in the regenerative medicine are already being used.  Recently CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews reported on a man who re-grew a severed fingertip.  According to Andrews possibilities abound for creating an organ in the lab that can be transplanted into a patient without risk of rejection. It sounds like science fiction, he says, but it’s not. You can watch the full report here.

And, finally, the story of cardiologist Mark Keating, a Harvard professor who is really into salamanders and newts and he’s spending all of his time studying them in hopes of uncovering their secret to regeneration.  Even if we could only partly regenerate an organ we’d be better off.  According to Dean Li, Keating’s business partner, “Patients with kidney failure need just 10 percent of their cells back and they can go off dialysis.”

But the small piece of kidney is less than the tip of the iceberg.  Hydra Biosciences, Keating’s Cambridge, Massachusetts Company, is also looking at the pancreas, skin, central nervous system, veins, joints, and eyes.

You can read more about Keating and his company here

While there is a considerable body of work taking place in regenerative medicine, there is also progress being made with artificial organs.  The exciting news here is the confluence of mechanical and biological research.  The result being organs that are a little of each.

Here are some headlines about technological medical advances:

  • A 10,000-rpm, no-pulse artificial heart  that doesn’t resemble an organic heart
  • A team of Japanese researchers who earlier this year engineered a mouse retina that is the most complex tissue ever engineered–have now derived a working pituitary gland from mouse stem cells.
  • Researchers in Cleveland have built an artificial lung that is so efficient it can breathe regular air rather than the pure oxygen required by current artificial lungs.
  • Impressive strides are being made toward developing an artificial pancreas, supplanting insulin injections and pinpricks for patients with diabetes

You can read the full stories and get information on other advancements as well at

As you can see, there’s a lot going on.

So…back to my point.  I believe that we as Americans should take the following positions.

1). we should support and promote altruistic organ donation to the fullest extent of our abilities.  There is no nobler cause.

2)  We should encourage decision makers, policy leaders, elected officials, everyone in a position of power to support and fund the most promising scientific and technological possibilities as an investment in our future.

One certain way to control health the health care costs that threaten to bankrupt us is to have a healthier population.  Medical science and technology can lead us there if our political leaders will not only allow them to but also support their financial and other needs. .

I believe that by becoming a healthier nation, we’ll be able to put a lot of our economic problems away for good.  The ramifications of what these scientists are doing in regenerative medicine go well beyond providing transplants for people who need them.  What they are doing strikes at the soul of who we are as a nation and if we survive or succeed.  I prefer success.

You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.

 Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.

 Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.

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About Bob Aronson

About Bob Aronson On August 21, 2007 I received a new heart at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. All these years later I am very active, happy and loving life. God bless my donor and his family. His generosity toward a complete stranger will never be forgotten. I am retired and live with my wife Robin and two dogs Reilly the main dog and Ziggy the backup. We are a very happy family. My gratitude to my wonderful caregiver wife, my donor, his family and the Mayo Clinic is beyond my ability to express. Suffice it to say I will do whatever is in my power to promote organ and tissue donation and to help and support everyone affected by the issue. As a result of receiving the “Gift of Life” I have made a major commitment to organ/tissue/blood donation, transplantation and related issues. I am the founder of Facebook's over 4,000 member support group, Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the blog site, “Bob’s Newheart” I have authored the great majority of the nearly 250 blogs listed there. The remainder were written by excellent guest bloggers. The posts span a wide variety of topics mostly involving organ/tissue donation/transplantation and related issues, but also covering important current medical news and information. Wordpress data indicate the blogs have readers in 162 countries. Bob's Newheart is quickly becoming the news and information source of choice for those with an interest in organ/tissue donation/transplantation along with current developments in medical news and health care. Born In Chisholm, Minnesota I now reside in Jacksonville, Florida. I have three children and one step son, 8 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. My three grown children are Roger Aronson a well-known and respected Minneapolis, Minnesota Attorney, Dr. Colleen Hegranes Senior Vice President St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota and Harryet (Hank) Freeman who is probably the best history teacher in America, at least that's what her students at Woodbury, Minnesota High school tell me. Stepson Tim Grant and wife Jennifer live a couple of blocks from us in Jacksonville. Jen is a talented cook, baker, and mother. Tim is an in-demand electrician in Jacksonville who can really make almost anything work. Stella and Lily Grant are two very bright and talented granddaughters. For 25 plus years I owned the Aronson Communications Group an international consultancy specializing in health care communication. The Mayo Clinic was my first consulting client, a relationship that lasted until my retirement. I also worked with 3M health care, UNOS, LIfeSource, Dartmouth University Medical Center and CH2M HILL, one of the nation's largest environmental engineering firms. Prior to being a consultant I served for four years as the first Anchor for Morning Edition on the Minnesota Public Radio Network; was the Communications director for Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich and before that held positions as a broadcast journalist at several Midwest facilities. I also served as the Director of broadcast communications at Moorhead State University in Moorhead, Minnesota. While I am retired Robin is not and I assist her efforts as founder and owner of Jingler’s Jewelry. She designs and makes colorful, "Fun" anodized aluminum jewelry and is also an accomplished printmaker. She sells her creations at art shows, festivals and gift shops in states east of the Mississippi but mostly in the south. Her website is When I have time, my hobbies include reading, music and woodworking. One of my most notable projects was completing a wood scale model of the mom and pop grocery store my parents ran for 50 years in Chisholm, Minnesota. The model now resides in Chisholm in my sister's home. Our parents were wonderful people who instilled in us a very strong work ethic and a sense of fairness and equality. I also built a dollhouse for granddaughter Lily Grant and just completed designing and building a CD box that looks like an accordion. A friend commissioned me to make it in memory of his father who was an accomplished accordion musician. I have a brother and sister of whom I am very proud . They are twins. Terry is a Minnesota District Court Judge and Mary a retired but still the best 3rd grade teacher in America. I am proud of them for what they have done but more importantly for who they are. My wife Robin is a caregiver, musician, artist, entrepreneur and the best friend I have. While we do a lot of things together we especially like making music. Often in the evening you can hear the strains of folk, Blue Grass, country and other music coming from our family room. Robin plays several instruments including string bass, accordion, guitar, ukulele, mandolin and...well the list goes on. I play harmonica and have one in almost every key. She's really good...I'm not. Quantity does not ensure quality. One more thing. I am also a recovering Alcoholic and a former smoker. I emerged from a 28 day in-patient alcoholism treatment program in August of 1982 and have managed to stay sober with the help of a lot of people both in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous. I quit smoking in January of 1991 after a 37 year habit of up to four packs of cigarettes a day. It wasn’t easy but I’m living proof that it can be done. I am available to anyone suffering from or affected by any addiction at any time through my email address or via phone 904-434-6512.

Posted on March 16, 2012, in Ending the Organ Shortage -- Solutions. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. USA is doing something right as although you have an opt in system, like we do in the UK, your country has the third highest cadaver donation rate in the world. Spain is top with opt out. We are a fair way down the list with opt in.


    • Thanks Jenny…but none of us,no nation is doing well enough to stop the dying. We’ve got to do better and I believe donation alone will never even come close. Especially when you consider that so few of the people who are organ donors and die were physically healthy enough to donate. We need to offer much greater support to science and technology.


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