Bioprinting human organs may one day eliminate the significant problems associated with transplanting hearts, kidneys, livers, etc. These include an extreme shortage of donors; extended, uncomfortable waiting periods; and body rejection of the implants.
With this emerging technology, a computer-controlled machine constructs the "cell scaffold" for a human organ layer by layer, seeded by the patient's own cells. Inserting an organ bioprinted with the patient's cells eliminates the possibility of rejection and with it the need for toxic anti-rejection medications.
There eventually will be an unlimited supply of bioprinted organs that can be ordered, delivered, and inserted as needed without surgical challenge. That is good news for the millions of sufferers worldwide who are waiting anxiously for donor organs. Their anticipation of bioprinted parts is as high as their need is acute.
Advances in bioprinting
Bioprinting has already been successfully used in humans for skin, cartilage, and urine tube implants for years. Even bladders have been bioprinted and inserted in the human body. For these applications, bioprinting presents a way to scale up lab production of organs in a reproducible process.
There have been several notable successes applying bioprinting in the medical field:
- Dutch researchers have successfully performed total jaw and skull reconstruction procedures with 3D-printed implants.
- Swedish company Cellink has developed a standardized "bio-ink." The liquid, comprised of human cells mixed with cellulose and seaweed extracts, is sold over the internet for universal application.
- Organovo in San Diego has successfully printed parts of hearts, lungs, and kidneys.
- Organovo signed a deal with L'Oréal in 2015 to supply bioprinted skin with the hope of eradicating the use of animals in product testing.
- L'Oréal is working with another French company on "4D bioprinting" using lasers to lay cells down one at a time to grow human hair. The fourth dimension of their process is time, as a cell is applied when the previous cell has completed its required function.
Because L'Oréal can test its cosmetics, age-defying lotions, and sunscreens endlessly on bioprinted human skin and hair, there is no need for animal testing.
Costs of the equipment used in bioprinting have fallen to one-tenth of where they started a few years ago. Cellink offers an effective 3D-printer for use with its bio-ink for as little as $10,000. They already use their machines to create human ears and noses.
Technological challenges remain with complex organs
"What's interesting is that there are no real surgical challenges. There are only the technological hurdles that you've got to overcome to make sure the engineered tissue functions correctly in the first place." Anthony Atala, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
The use of 3D-bioprinting technology for complex organs still faces significant challenges. The pancreas, liver, or kidney, all solid structures comprised of billions of cells executing specialized functions, are served by a complex vascular system.
Success in the bioprinting of such organs might be a decade or two away. Some predict it could happen sooner than that. Meanwhile, the market for bioprinting worldwide is expected to more than triple from more than $400 million in 2016 to $1.33 billion in 2021.
Bioprinting complex human organs changes everything
The Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than 20 people die every day in the U.S. while waiting for donor organs. Patients are told to hang on, while they suffer the medical consequences of failing parts, including:
- continuous discomfort
- tiredness and lack of energy
- disruption of normal lives
- debilitating toxins in bloodstreams, and
- negative side effects of prescribed medication
Those in need of kidneys must undergo regular dialysis under medical care, with all of the irritation and interruption that entails.
"For me, the demand wasn't an abstract thing. It was very real, it was heartbreaking, and it drove me. It drove all of us to find new fixes." Anthony Atala, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Bioprinting of human organs promises to address, in a single stroke, triple challenges:
- meeting the almost unlimited global demand for organs
- relieving the agony of waiting for them, and
- eliminating organ rejection from the equation
With the major problems bioprinting might one day overcome, it's no wonder the medical community regards the technology as the "holy grail" of regenerative medicine.
-Smithsonian Magazine -- "Soon, Your Doctor Could Print a Human Organ on Demand: At a laboratory in North Carolina, scientists are working furiously to create a future in which replacement organs come from a machine" by Matthew Shaer; May 2015
-The Guardian -- "Interview: Could 3D printing solve the organ transplant shortage?" by Tim Lewis; July 30, 2017
-BBC News -- "The firm that can 3D print human body parts" by Maddy Savage; November 15, 2017
-Wikipedia -- "Organ printing"
-HuffPost -- "How 3D Printing Could End The Deadly Shortage Of Donor Organs" by Macrina Cooper-White; March 1, 2015 (Updated Dec 06, 2017)
-medicalphysicsweb -- "3D printing of human organs on the horizon" March 4, 2016
-Singularity Hub -- "Printable Organs Will Put an End to Transplant Lists" by Tobi Ogunnaike; November 4, 2016
-Daily Mail -- "The 3D printed HEART: Scientists could soon build replacement organs using a patient's own cells" by Sarah Griffiths; April 10, 2014