For the first time ever, scientists have managed to make intact human organs transparent, allowing them to peer inside these vital body parts without needing to dissect them. The technique provides a window into the complex inner workings of our organs, right down to the cellular level, producing some pretty awesome images for us to gawp at in the process.
Scientists have previously been able to turn mouse organs transparent, but the same technique wouldn’t work in human organs as they’re too stiff. This is due to an accumulation of insoluble molecules like collagen.
“We had to change our approach completely and start from scratch to find new chemicals which can make human organs transparent,” explained Shan Zhao, PhD student at Helmholtz Zentrum München and first author of the study published in the journal Cell.
The team eventually identified a mix of chemicals called CHAPS that did the job; the detergent could create tiny holes in the stiff organs, allowing solutions that make them transparent to penetrate through. Applying their new method to a variety of organs from deceased donors, the team succeeded in making complete human organs transparent for the first time.
To get a good look at the newly see-through organs, the researchers developed a new laser-scanning microscope that had space to hold an entire organ, to which they gave the epic name Ultramicroscope Blaze. The team then created deep-learning algorithms that could analyze the vast quantities of cells within the organs in 3D. The new tech was officially named SHANEL, which stands for Small-micelle-mediated Human orgAN Efficient clearing and Labeling. With the help of SHANEL, the researchers were able to map beta-cell islets in the pancreas, which are crucial for insulin production, details of the network of blood vessels in the kidney, and cellular details of the eye.
“SHANEL can develop into a key technology for mapping intact human organs in the near future. This would dramatically accelerate our understanding of organs such as the brain, their development and function in health and disease,” explained Dr Ali Ertürk, Director of the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Helmholtz Zentrum München.
The team are now working towards producing detailed maps of organs like the heart, something they hope could one day help us 3D print much-needed organs for use in transplants. Essentially, the maps could potentially serve as a blueprint for creating fully functioning human organs. The ability to do this on a large scale could massively reduce wait times for people in need of new organs, and ensure that these patients receive their transplant before it is too late.