3D Printers: Cheap, Fast Solution to Organ Replacement

Posted by By Patty at 11 February, at 23 : 26 PM Print


Patients who need a kidney or heart transplant in the future wouldn’t have to face the long waits for a donated organ like they do today.

Actual statistics say that more than 115,000 people are on the organ transplant waiting list in United States alone. But because of the limited donor supply, 18 of those on the list die every day. If one is lucky to find a suitable donor, he has to undergo risky surgery, face the danger of post-operative complications and possibility of organ rejection. To find solution to the problem, researchers did extensive studies and tests on growing human organs in a laboratory where 3d printing plays a huge role.

Much were heard about 3d printing the recent years and its ability to produce just about anything you can think of: from lego models to screws or hammer – and even food! See related article here. Over the years, 3D printing has been successfully used in the health care sector to create prosthetic limbs, custom hearing aids and dental fixtures. These experiments progressed to creating more complex structures — particularly human tissue.

It may sound like science fiction. But it is happening and here’s how it works: A machine scans a 3D image of the human organ. Then, tissue from the patient is used to seed the printer. The technology is an extension of ink-jet printing. But here, the computer-guided printing head directs tiny droplets of the living cells (immersed in a biocompatible ink) into a 3D representation of the desired tissue, thus creating a new organ layer by layer.

Perfecting the technology may still be years away. But see how we started and how quickly we are getting there:

  • In 2002 Professor Makoto Nakamura realized that the droplets of ink in a standard inkjet printer are about the same size as human cells. He tried adapting the technology to eject living cells, and by 2008 had successfully created a working bioprinter that can print out biotubing similar to a blood vessel.
  • In March of 2008, Another bioprinting company, Organovo, was able to bioprint functional blood vessels and cardiac tissue using cells obtained from a chicken. In December 2010, they succeeded in bioprinting blood vessels using cells cultured from a single person. They have also successfully implanted bioprinted nerve grafts into rats, and would like to progress to implanting bioprinted tissues to human by 2015.
  • A team from Columbia University lead by Jeremy Mao bioprinted and implanted a mesh-like 3D scaffold, shaped to an incisor, into the jaw bone of a rat. Nine weeks after implantation, fresh periodontal ligaments and newly formed alveolar bone began forming. The same team implanted bioprinted scaffolds in the place of the hip bones of several rabbits. The same experiments were infused with growth factors. They are convinced that sometime on the next decade, human patients may be fitted with bioprinted scaffolds.
  • Physicians and scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine were the first in the world to engineer laboratory-grown bladder that were successfully implanted into a human. Luke Massella received an engineered bladder in 2001 and have successfully adapted to it. Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, believes that it is only a matter of time before more complex bioprinted organs like kidneys will become widely available for transplants.
  • Jonathan Butcher, biologist from Cornell University, has 3D-printed a working heart valve out of biological polymers. This 2013, they intend to test it in an animal model. Once perfected, they believe 3D printing could dramatically reduce the cost of organ transplant surgery and help bring it to the developing world.
  • US start-up Modern Meadow began bioengineering meat from an animal’s stem cell. These cells are able to replicate themselves multiple times, which are then placed into a bio-cartridge. The process of printing meat is similar to attempts to printing artificial organs for transplants.

This is the most incredible development in biological science. It is mind blowing!

While some people might find these all a bit creepy, it’s not hard to see the world-changing implications of this new technology and how it is starting to reshape modern medicine. It’s surely only a matter of time before this happens and, when it does, the agony of the seemingly endless wait for a donor organ will become a thing of the past. Doctors can just print one on-demand kidney for his patient. This eliminates the need for organ donors as well as avoiding the inherent risks of transplant surgery.

And think about it: Doctors could easily grow back a perfect, functioning clone of a patient’s old, damaged organ! Does this also mean the possibility of longer life expectancy? And no more need for dialysis or taking tons of expensive medications?

In the future, these printers won’t only create new organs. They’ll also be able to do things like scan an open wound and print new skin directly on the patient. Though still a long way from helping an actual human patient, having this kind of technology on the way is very encouraging.

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