3D printing and organ transplants

Advances in science and medicine are keeping people alive longer. However, the more you age the more your organs tend to fail. And there is limited supply of organs available for transplant. In the US, for example, there are some 90,000 patients waiting for kidney transplants, and the probability of them receiving a kidney transplant within five years of being added to the waiting list is less than 35 per cent. This has now become a public health crisis.

Not surprisingly, therefore, scientists are looking into using 3D printers to print new organs.

3D Printing is a digital technology that can produce complex physical objects such as jewelry and airplane parts. As a gross simplification, think of 3D printers as an inkjet printer. Instead of ink, the printer deposits successive layers of materials to form an actual object. Many experts believe that this technology is a game changer in manufacturing with revolutionary implications for retailing models, international trade and global supply chain.

I became interested in 3D printing after reading the lead article in the Economist of February 2011. The front cover has this intriguing title “Print me a Stradivarius” and shows a violin that has been “printed”. Since then much has been written about 3D Printing. For more information, go to www.3Dprintingindustry.com.

Can human organs be printed?

3d printing organsYes, 3D printers can print human organs. Instead of creating objects from materials like metal or plastic used in 3D manufacturing, the bio-printer would print from living cells. The technology today is able to print all kinds of organs.

Broadly, there are four levels of complexity in human organs. The first are flat organs like skin comprising just a few types of cells; the second are tubes like windpipes and blood vessels with slightly more complex shapes and more varied cells; the third are hollow sac-like organs such as stomachs and bladder that are required to act on demand; and the fourth are solid organs like kidneys, heart, and lungs that have complicated architecture with many types of cells and blood vessels.

There are reports of successful transplants of printed organs of the first two levels of complexity. Of particular challenge are the level four organs even though the technologies are already here. See the video below demonstrating the printing of a kidney (not yet usable) by Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a leading research institute in this area.

I think it is only a matter of time – perhaps five years – before synthetic complex organs will become widely available for transplants.

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