As of Nov. 28, 2008, 100,712 people idled on a list run by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Set up at the behest of U.S. Congress, the federal network matches up organ donors with transplant recipients. Imagine you're No. 100,711 on that list and in desperate need of a heart. Even worse, what if your number finally came up, and your body rejected that replacement heart? In 2008, scientists started to change that dire scenario with the help of stem cells.
Stems cells are the body's version of smart kids who've been told they can grow up to be whatever they want to be, except stem cells actually can. These bodily blank slates are enormously valuable and, until lately, enormously hard to get because they come armed with controversy. But researchers recently sidestepped the controversy by successfully retraining adult stem cells and skin cells to act like true stem cells, even growing heart muscle cells in one instance. The idea is that doctors eventually could extract these cells from a patient and grow them to form a full-blown, customized replacement organ. Somewhere, someone who's waiting for a heart is keeping his or her fingers crossed and maybe reading Could we clone our organs to be used in a transplant?.