medicine, stem cells, technology

3D Printing… Organs

Using 3D printers to create human organs for transplants is becoming more of a reality and less of a sci-fi story. If you’re fascinated by techie gadgets, you’re probably well-aware of the 3D printer industry, and that there’s a wide range of 3D printers available that make objects by printing out, and building upon, successive layers in different shapes. These printers can cost a few hundred dollars (making a personal printer possible) to several thousand dollars, and use plastic, metals, and other materials. (When I attended the NoCo Mini Maker Faire earlier this month, I enjoyed seeing many different types in action – the technology is clearly on the rise.) Amazingly, some of these “other materials” actually include biological cells.

3D printer
Low-cost 3D printer (using blue plastic). (Image credit: Deezmaker)

To “bioprint” tissues, organs, and other living body parts using 3D printers, the cells are mixed with some kind of supportive medium (like a gel or sugar matrix) and, like regular 3D printers, the “object” is printed out one layer at a time. In some uses, once the mixture is printed out, the different cell types actually naturally migrate into the desired locations. One of the biggest recent breakthroughs in this field was the creation of 3D printed kidneys by a group in China. However, these won’t be transplanted into somebody any time soon – the “organs” are small and only live about four months. Back in April, another group bioprinted livers, but these were even tinier.

While bioprinting skin and tubular structures (like blood vessels) are feasible challenges, it gets a lot trickier with more complicated organs. The thickness of bioprinted tissues has been limited to a few inches, as thicker ones require blood vessels throughout to supply nutrients to the cells trapped within. As a lead researcher in the field, Tony Atala, explains — after tubular structures, they’d next go after “hollow, nontubular organs like bladders” and then more complex organs, like the heart, kidneys, and liver. Despite the obvious challenges, the burgeoning technology promises amazing progress in the medical field, from supplying patient-specific, transplantable organs on demand to providing researchers with organs to test new drugs on, and much more in between. And this is why biotech start-up companies, like Organovo (which made the tiny livers), are seizing bioprinting technology.

The interdisciplinary nature of this story is just one more reminder that a researcher should never become too focused on their own field – it’s important to stay abreast of cutting-edge developments in seemingly unrelated fields as well.

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One Response to “3D Printing… Organs”

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I absolutely believe this site needs much more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks
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    Posted by 3d printer store | June 17, 2014, 6:43 PM

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