I’ve seen this photograph very frequently on tumblr and Facebook, always with the simple caption, “Ghost Heart”. What exactly is a ghost heart?

More than 3,200 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant in the United States. Some won’t survive the wait. Last year, 340 died before a new heart was found.

The solution: Take a pig heart, soak it in an ingredient commonly found in shampoo and wash away the cells until you’re left with a protein scaffold that is to a heart what two-by-four framing is to a house.

Then inject that ghost heart, as it’s called, with hundreds of millions of blood or bone-marrow stem cells from a person who needs a heart transplant, place it in a bioreactor - a box with artificial lungs and tubes that pump oxygen and blood into it - and wait as the ghost heart begins to mature into a new, beating human heart.

Doris Taylor, director of regenerative medicine research at the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, has been working on this— first using rat hearts, then pig hearts and human hearts - for years.

The process is called decellularization and it is a tissue engineering technique designed to strip out the cells from a donor organ, leaving nothing but connective tissue that used to hold the cells in place. 

This scaffold of connective tissue - called a “ghost organ” for its pale and almost translucent appearance - can then be reseeded with a patient’s own cells, with the goal of regenerating an organ that can be transplanted into the patient without fear of tissue rejection.

This ghost heart is ready to be injected with a transplant recipient’s stem cells so a new heart - one that won’t be rejected - can be grown.



The Method of Plastination

Plastination is a relatively simple process designed to preserve the body for educational and instructional purposes. Plastination, like many revolutionary inventions, is simple in concept:

1. Embalming and Anatomical Dissection

The first step of the process involves halting decay by pumping formalin into the body through the arteries. Formalin kills all bacteria and chemically stops the decay of tissue. Using dissection tools, the skin, fatty and connective tissues are removed in order to prepare the individual anatomical structures.

2. Removal of Body Fat and Water

In the first step, the body water and soluble fats are dissolved from the body by placing it into a solvent bath (e.g., an acetone bath).

3. Forced Impregnation

This second exchange process is the central step in Plastination. During forced impregnation a reactive polymer, e.g., silicone rubber, replaces the acetone. To achieve this, the specimen is immersed in a polymer solution and placed in vacuum chamber. The vacuum removes the acetone from the specimen and helps the polymer to penetrate every last cell.

4. Positioning

After vacuum impregnation, the body is positioned as desired. Every single anatomical structure is properly aligned and fixed with the help of wires, needles, clamps, and foam blocks.

5. Curing (Hardening)

In the final step, the specimen is hardened. Depending on the polymer used, this is done with gas, light, or heat. Dissection and Plastination of an entire body requires about 1,500 working hours and normally takes about one year to complete.

Autonomic nerves of the face, neck, thorax and abdomen by Nicolas Henri Jacob from ‘Traité complet de l’anatomie de l’homme’ by Marc Jean Bourgery, 1831.

Dissection to show branches of the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V), glossopharyngeal nerve (cranial nerve IX), and hypoglossal nerve (cranial nerve XII). Spinal nerves and brachial plexus, vagus nerve (cranial nerve X), and laryngeal nerves, esophageal plexus, and celiac plexus also shown.