Search our Blog

Search our Blog

Thursday, November 9, 2023

In the Future, Will You Get a 3D-Printed Organ?

Researchers are coming closer to making printed kidneys, hearts and more in the lab. Skin, bones, muscle structures, blood vessels and more have already been 3D printed — but they’re not approved for use in people quite yet. 

Every day, seventeen Americans die waiting for an organ donation, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration. More than 9 out of 10 people on the transplant list need a functioning kidney. For those lucky few who do get an organ, there are still issues like organ rejection to overcome and the need to take potentially harmful immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their life. 

3D Printers Make Organs

To surmount these obstacles, scientists have been working to make hearts, kidneys, livers, lungs and even brains out of a patient’s own tissue, combined with polymers, using 3D printers. It will take at least another decade of work to create organs that function like the real thing, according to Jennifer Lewis, a professor at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. 

3D Ear Attached to Patient Born Without One

In 2022, a woman born without an ear on her right side got one implanted that matched her left ear. This surgery is fairly routine, except that this was the first time the implanted ear was made with the patient’s own live skin and cells using a 3D printer. The procedure was quite remarkably “very uneventful,” according to surgeon Arturo Bonilla.

From the stuff of fantasy to a wishful idea and now a burgeoning field, 3D organ implantation is becoming a reality. “I think that in 10 years we will have organs for transplantation,” says professor Tal Dvir, director of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “We will start with simple organs like skin and cartilage, but then we’ll move on to more complicated tissues—eventually the heart, liver, kidney.” 

“About a million people worldwide are in need of a kidney,” says Lewis. “So they have end-stage renal failure, and they have to go on dialysis. Once you go on dialysis, you have essentially five years to live, and every year, your mortality rate increases by 15 percent. Dialysis is very hard on your body. So this is really motivating to take on this grand challenge of printing organs.”

The technology itself is improving. “The ability to place different cell types in precise locations to build up a complex tissue, and the capability of integrating blood vessels that can deliver the necessary oxygen and nutrients to keep cells alive, are two (3D) techniques that are revolutionizing tissue engineering,” says Mark Skylar-Scott, an assistant professor in the Stanford University department of bioengineering. “The field has moved very quickly over the past two decades, from printed bladders to now highly cellular tissues with vessels that can be connected to a pump—and complex 3D models that resemble heart components with integrated heart cells.”

Making a 3D Organ

To make an organ, a small (less than a postage stamp) amount of cells are collected that are told to become specific types of cells. They are mixed with polymers or alginate to make bioinks, which are placed in nozzles and squeezed out, layer by layer, in the 3D bioprinting process. It can take several hours to make an organ. 

The organ may then be flushed with oxygen and nutrients, such as blood provides in the body. The tissue will eventually mature and hopefully begin to function. 

Scientists are already developing working models, although not in humans. A mobile skin bioprinting system is in development that could be wheeled through a hospital, measuring non-healing burns and wounds and then printing skin directly on to the site. At least one lab has printed a tiny, rabbit-size heart that had blood vessels and a heartbeat, while lungs and a pancreas have achieved success inside animal models. 

Seniors Have Special Needs

Older Americans could also benefit greatly from 3D-printed body parts. Eyes with macular degeneration could be replaced, or cancerous skin. Failing old hearts could be replaced with healthy newer ones, and there is even reason to think that injured muscle could be rejuvenated. The destruction caused by degenerative nerve, heart and bone conditions, such as osteoporosis, could be repaired. 

3D Organs Are Cost Effective
But wait, what about the cost of these organs? There’s good news on this front as well. 

The new organs will be “accessible for sure,” says Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “The costs associated with organ failures are very high. Just to keep a patient on dialysis is over a quarter of a million dollars per year, just to keep one patient on dialysis. So, it’s a lot cheaper to create an organ that you can implant into the patient.”

An average kidney transplant surgery was $442,500 in 2020, according to data published by the American Society of Nephrology. Much of that goes toward harvesting the organ and transferring it to where the surgery is to be performed. Conversely, a high-end 3D printer may cost $10,000. Of course, surgery would still have to be done and the patient followed up, but costs would likely lower considerably, even before the need for years of dialysis was eliminated. 

The availability of 3D-printed organs is not just around the corner, but it’s on its way. While researchers are still solving the problem of making safe, reliable, functioning organs on a consistent basis, the framework of how to do it has already been developed. The technology for 3D-printed organs is not here, but it’s getting closer every day.