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.
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.
For further reading:
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine
- BBC News Technology’s article “3D-printed sugar network to help grow artificial liver”
- Stuart Nathan’s article “Building body parts with 3D printing” at The Engineer
- Colin Druce-McFadden’s article “Tiny kidneys are world’s first 3D printed living organs”
- Charley Cameron’s article “Organovo 3D-Prints the World’s First Tiny Human Livers“
- Jeremy Hsu’s article “3D Printed Organs May Mean End to Waiting Lists, Deadly Shortages” in Huff Post Science
- Jeremy Hsu’s article “Tiny 3D-Printed Organs Aim for ‘Body on a Chip’” at Live Science