Our organs and tissues are made up of three main components: fluid, cells, and extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM serves as an attachment point for cells, provides structural organization, and gives mechanical strength to the tissue. It is highly complex and highly organized on both the micro and macro scale, and it is made up of components specific to each organ. Scientists have developed a specialized technique to remove all the cells from a tissue. Aptly named “decellularization,” this technique perfuses the tissue with a series of detergents that wash away the cells and leave behind the structural components of the ECM.
However, what good is an organ without cells? Without these cells, the tissue loses its functionality but also much of its immunogenicity. Decellularized organs give tissue engineers a head start at regenerating tissue, since much of the structure and many of the ECM proteins are still there. Current research aims to restore the functionality lost during decellularization through various “re-cellularization” techniques, which may be possible to perform with a patient’s own cells. If successful, organ transplants from xenogenic sources, such as pigs, could alleviate the enormous organ donation shortage.