James Hyman waited nearly four years for his new heart. He takes more than 50 pills a day to prevent his body from rejecting it.

Health problems pushed him out the job he loved when he was just 52 years old.

Now 65, the former superintendent of the Berkeley County school system appreciates the little things in life, like having the stamina to shop for Easter baskets for his grandchildren.

His wife, Susie, said that before transplant surgery in December her husband appeared ashen. But immediately afterward, "he had a nice rosy look." She's grateful for her husband's new heart, but wishes it hadn't come to them because of someone else's tragedy.

People on waiting lists for critical body parts are desperately in need of relief, James Hyman said. And he's certain that scientists soon will be able to produce human organs using recipients' own stem cells.

Their bodies would be much less likely to reject organs grown from their own stem cells, he said. "And it would take donors out of the equation."

"Somebody is going to come up with it," he said of the organ-building technology.

That might just be researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina and some of the state's other higher education institutions.

Richard Visconti is a researcher and professor in the department of regenerative medicine and cell biology at MUSC. He said it will be years before scientists actually can produce human organs and that the heart would be among the last to be created because it is so complex.

But Visconti and other researchers already have been successful in their first steps toward developing the technology to construct organs and creating the biological material required to create them.

Bioprinting lab

The first bioengineered organs likely will be produced by a machine similar to a computer printer, Visconti said. The device will drop the proper cells, a layer at a time. The cells will fuse, eventually forming a three-dimensional organ.

That process, called "bioprinting," is a South Carolina invention pioneered by MUSC's Vladimir Mironov and Clemson University's Thomas Boland.

In the mid-1990s, Boland modified an ink jet printer, filled the ink cartridge with living cells, then printed a Clemson tiger paw with a single layer of cells. The experiment marked one of the preliminary steps toward printing organs.

Bioprinting has advanced since Boland conducted his early work, Visconti said, but not enough to print organs. "We can print things that look like blood vessels," he said, "but they don't behave like blood vessels."

MUSC is setting up a bioprinting lab in the Basic Science Building on campus, Visconti said. It's part of The South Carolina Project, a statewide academic alliance of 10 higher education institutions, including MUSC, the University of South Carolina and Clemson, that will work on organ biofabrication.

The alliance landed a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation last summer to launch the project.

MUSC's Roger Markwald, chairman of the department of regenerative medicine and cell biology, is the lead scientist on the project.

The five-year grant, the largest the state has ever received from the foundation, is an "infrastructure grant," Visconti said. It will enable the institutions to hire 22 new faculty members, set up labs, and continue the scientific work already under way.

Visconti said he doesn't know how long it will take to produce an organ because it is impossible to predict the pace of scientific research.

The first phase of the research will focus on building a "vascular tree," which is the inner branching structure that carries the blood and oxygen that feeds the organ.

The vascular tree is the key to engineering larger, more complex organs, such as a kidney, liver or heart, Visconti said. Scientist already can produce simple organs, such as skin for skin grafts, that don't need an internal feeding source.

Building blocks

Researchers at MUSC also have been successful in the early stages of creating the blood vessels that make up the vascular tree, Visconti said.

Blood vessels are tubular structures made up of an inner ring of endothelial cells, which regulate the flow of blood, and an outer layer of smooth muscle cells, which provide structure and help maintain blood pressure.

Visconti and his colleagues have produced smooth muscle cells from stem cells derived from human fat. The fat was a by-product of human liposuction procedures, he said.

All stem cell research at MUSC currently is done with adult stem cells, he said. And they appear to be the best cells with which to build blood vessels. "But we're not against embryonic stem cells. We support ethical, regulated use," he said.

The researchers also have been successful getting those smooth muscle cells to wrap around a sphere of endothelial cells taken from human tissue, a significant scientific precursor to building a blood vessel.

And early experiments show that they also can make a branching network of endothelial cells surrounded by smooth muscle cells in a petri dish.

To the market

MUSC President Ray Greenberg has said the work could lead to technology with commercial applications, with the potential to transform the state's economy and attract new high-tech businesses to the area.

But the road from the petri dish to the market will be long, Visconti said.

"Getting a drug to the market takes about 10 years and $200 million," he said. "Organs are much more complicated than drugs."

New facilities

Some of the research on creating human organs will take place in a new, 96,000-square-foot Bioengineering Building, one of two new research buildings under construction in a former parking lot on President Street on MUSC's campus.

The other is a 114,000-square-foot Drug Discovery Building. Provost Leslie Kendall said both are expected to open in the fall of 2011.

The facilities are being built at the same time and construction will cost about $74 million combined. Money for the buildings came from the state's Research University Infrastructure Act, federal awards and private donations.

University leaders had expected both buildings to be completed this year, but they were delayed because of design revisions and the economy, Kendall said.

The new facilities will dramatically increase the university's research space, which in turn will promote scientific discovery and economic development. They also will be an asset when the university applies for competitive federal grants, school leaders said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postand courier.com.