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Bioprinting: Can We End the Deadly Shortage of Donor Organs?

3Dprinted-organsScientists and engineers are making incredible things thanks to 3D printing, but the biggest (and possibly the most life-saving) is in biomedical engineering.

We’ve shown you how Duke University scientists have grown muscles in their labs, and the successful regeneration of a thymus gland in an old mouse. And now researchers are working on using the emerging technology of bioprinting (3D printing human tissues and organs) to fabricate hearts, kidneys, and other vital human organs.

Once the technology gets up and running, this will be very big news because the number of people who need an organ transplant far exceeds the number of donor organs available. On average, about 21 Americans die every day waiting for an organ transplant. So, could bioprinting be the key to saving even more lives than ever before?

To find out, Huffington Post Science reached out to Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and a world-renowned expert in the field, with a few questions about what bioprinting could do for the medical field:

Can 3D printing end the shortage of organs?

3D printing is not magic. It is simply a way to scale up the current processes we use to engineer organs in the laboratory. Our team has successfully engineered bladders, cartilage, and skin that have been implanted in patients. The ultimate goal of regenerative medicine -– regardless of the way the organs are engineered — is to help solve the shortage of donor organs.

How might 3D-printed organs compare to donor organs?

[The]goal is to engineer organs using a patient’s own cells. With this approach, there would be no issues with rejection, and patients wouldn’t have to take the powerful anti-rejection drugs that are now required.

How does it all work? How do you “print” a human organ?

A first step in organ engineering –- whether it involves 3D printing or other methods –- is to get a biopsy. From this biopsy, cells with regenerative properties are isolated and multiplied. These cells are then mixed with an oxygen-rich liquid material and placed in a printer cartridge. A separate printer cartridge is filled with a biomaterial that will be printed into the organ-structure, which is designed on a computer using a patient’s medical scans.

What happens when you press the “print” button?

The printer builds the structure layer by layer and embeds cells into each layer. When cells are provided the right mixture of nutrients and growth factors –- and placed in the right environment — they know what to do, and perform their functions. To see more about Dr. Atala’s vision for bioprinting, check out his 2011 TEDTalk on YouTube.

What are some of the challenges that you’re facing right now?

Scientists have successfully engineered three categories of organs: flat structures such as skin, tubular structures such as urine tubes and blood vessels, and hollow structures such as the bladder. The most complex organs are solid structures, such as the kidney, liver, and pancreas. Because these structures require billions of cells to be printed and require oxygen to stay alive, the process is much trickier than the organs have been.

Dr. Atala says that, “We are exploring a variety of options, [like] printing oxygen-generating materials into the structures; printing micro-channels that can maximize the diffusion of nutrients and oxygen from nearby tissues; and printing blood vessels into the structures.”

How many years away are we from printing complex organs like the heart and kidney?

Science is unpredictable, so it is impossible to make predictions. But I think we can safely say that the timeframe required to routinely print and implant complex organs is decades, rather than years.

What’s next for bioprinting?

We are continuing to refine our printers to increase printing resolution and [are] learning how to keep the printing process from damaging cells. In addition, we are making advances in identifying which biomaterials work best for specific structures.

One relatively new bioprinting project… aims to print mini hearts, livers, blood vessels, and lungs on a chip system. Called a “Body on a Chip,” this project has the potential to test new drugs more accurately and perhaps eliminate the need for testing in animals.

This is all really fascinating news and we encourage you to go read more of the Huffington Post’s interview with Dr. Atala. If bioprinting continues in this direction, we may see a dramatic decrease in human deaths related to organ failure in the near future!

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