3D Bioprinting Could Speed Organ Transplant Process

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3D printing via Shutterstock 3D printing via Shutterstock

Maybe 3D printing is not new, but it seems to be transforming science, especially in the field of regenerative medicine.

Specifically, it addresses the need for tissues and organs suitable for transplantation -- which would be the answer to countless prayers. Until that goal is realized, the development of this technology has far-reaching applications not only in medicine but in research, drug discovery, and toxicology as well.

In London, a two-year old girl recently received a kidney transplant from her father and the surgery was a success, thanks to the ability of surgeons to reproduce a model of her father s kidney and her abdomen using a 3D printer. The model of the donor father s kidney was recreated in the exact dimensions and density of his real kidney, which allowed the surgeons to better plan and practice the operation with increased safety and efficacy.

Three-dimensional printing, known in the manufacturing industry as additive manufacturing, has been around for over two decades. It is an additive process where successive layers of material are distributed to form 3D shapes. In contrast to non-biological printing, 3D bioprinting involves multiple complexities such as choice of materials, cell types, growth and differentiation factors, and technical challenges related to sensitivities of living cells and the construction of tissues.

A U.S.-based 3D bioprinting company, Organovo, seems to be committed in helping patients benefit from this technology.

The biggest challenge to making larger tissues is keeping them alive," said CEO Keith Murphy. "We could print a larger block of tissue but it wouldn t survive because the cells need oxygen and nutrients. You need a full vascular system like the one that exists in the body to keep those cells alive.

It's one thing to grow cells, which was a feat that scientists were able to overcome. The other challenge lay in recreating the environment outside of cells, the extracellular matrix (ECM) that serves as the scaffold for cells, which contains collagen or fibrin. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon appear to have overcome that hurdle, as they describe in a paper published in Science Advances.

In the U.S., the most commonly transplanted organs are the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, pancreas and intestines. There are about 75,000 patients on that waiting list on any given day and an average of 22 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. These statistics are grim.

There are still glitches to hammer out, but 3D bioprinting seems to be the future of organ transplants. Hopefully, one day we can look back and say that no one needs to die waiting for an organ.