3D printing organs

From science fiction to science fact, 3D printed organs are making their way into the world of medicine.

At first, the idea of 3D printing organs for transplant ‘on demand’ sounds like something out of the movies. However, machines that promise to regenerate living human tissue, replace vital organs and quickly heal open wounds are a lot closer to reality than you may realize.

3D printed organs are already being used as teaching aids for would-be surgeons to fine-tune their skills before entering real world emergency situations. 3D printed bone replacements have also been successfully transplanted, but living tissue is the next big step for this ground breaking technology.


The Process.

Much like any other 3D print, layers are stacked on top of one another, but instead of PLA or ABS, living cells suspended in gel is used to ‘build’ living tissue. The cells then grow to form and develop into tissue, bone and even whole organs. The promise of what this technology could do for mankind is great. There is a worldwide shortage of organ donors and 3D bioprinting could hold the solution. For a visual guide of this process, check out this helpful infographic of bioprinting.

Early developers.

Although not ready for commercial application just yet, 3D bioprinting is currently in development with some mind-blowing results coming from all over the world.

One such development has come from a team of bioengineers from the University of Pennsylvania, who have used a RepRap printer to create working blood vessels. Bioengineers across the world have been making steady progress towards the goal of printing organs out of a patient’s own cells, but in order to do this, a few big challenges must be overcome. A key challenge facing bioengineers is making vasculature, the blood vessel plumbing system that delivers nutrients and removes waste from the cells on the inside of a mass of tissue. Without the ability to create these blood vessels, interior cells will quickly suffocate and die. But the team in Pennsylvania have come up with an amazing solution.

Bioengineers from the University of Pennsylvania have turned the problem inside out by using a 3D printer called a RepRap to make templates of blood vessel networks out of sugar. Once the networks are encased in a block of cells, the sugar can be dissolved, leaving a functional vascular network behind.

Bioengineering postdoc Jordan Miller says the idea came to him while he was visiting an exhibition.

“I got the first hint of this solution when I visited a Body Worlds exhibit, where you can see plastic casts of free-standing, whole organ vasculature.”

Once the printed sugar has become hard, the team adds liver cells in to the mold, suspended in a gel. This gel covers the filaments, encasing the blood vessel template. As soon as the gel hardens, it can be removed from the mold. The sugar template remains inside until the block of gel is washed out with water, dissolving the last of the sugar inside. The liquified sugar then easily flows out of the very same vessels it has created, preventing any harm to the growing cells themselves.

“This new technology, from the cell’s perspective, makes tissue formation a gentle and quick journey,” says Professor Christopher Chen, the Skirkanich Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering.



Major breakthrough.

Surgeon Anthony Atala is the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and he and his team have taken 3D organ printing a step further.  Using living cells, Atala is working towards 3D printing a transplantable kidney. Although still in its early stages, Atala’s team are making great progress towards solving one of the biggest problems facing transplants – a worldwide shortage of donor kidneys.

Atala is the man who also successfully transplanted an engineered bladder into his patient Luke Massella over 10 years ago, so he’s a man well aware of how this technology can change lives.

In the video below, Anthony Atala speaks at TED Talks and asks the question; “Can we grow organs instead of transplanting them?”. His lab at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is doing precisely that – engineering over 30 tissues and whole organs.



Practical applications.

Beyond direct organ transplants, 3D printing can be used to benefit many different aspects of the medical world. Helping to not only produce donor organs but to also provide better healing for patients and education for medical staff and students. Some practical examples of how this can be put to real-world use include:


1. Organs

First is the most obvious use for 3D printed organs: transplants. The benefits of being able to generate organs directly from a patient’s own living cells cannot be over stated and could save tens of thousands of lives every year.


2. Support skeletons

Making complex and detailed prints is one of 3D printing’s fortes and so 3D printers are already being used to create biodegradable support skeletons to aid and facilitate healing and tissue growth.


3. Bone replacements

Combined with 3D scanning, 3D printers can create bone replacements, like hips, with a unique and perfect fit for those in need. Creating a replacement that is tailor-made for each patient greatly reduces any discomfort to the patient and improves mobility after the transplant is completed.


4. Practice surgeries

Whenever you visit the doctor you want to know you’re in experienced hands. No one wants to be a surgeon’s “first ever open heart surgery”. With 3D printed organs, would-be surgeons could perform dozens or even hundreds of surgeries before ever being placed in a real-world situation. Allowing surgeons to be better trained could reduce surgery times and allow for quicker healing.


5. Medical testing

Nobody likes the idea of testing drugs, whether it’s on animals or on humans. But then again, we all want to know our medication has been tested and is safe. With 3D bioprinting, ‘test’ organs and tissue could be made to check for any side effects or negative reactions to a given medication in development. If you see a side effect listed on a bottle or package, it’s because someone (or something) has suffered that symptom through testing. 3D printing could help end testing on humans and animals and facilitate the continued advancement of medicine.


Leading researchers.

One of the major developers of commercial organ printing is San Diego based Organovo. Their website reads:

“At Organovo, we design and create functional human tissues using our proprietary three-dimensional bioprinting technology. Our goal is to build living human tissues that are proven to function like native tissues. With reproducible 3D tissues that accurately represent human biology, we are enabling ground-breaking therapies by:

  • Partnering with biopharmaceutical companies and academic medical centers to design, build, and validate more predictive in vitro tissues for disease modeling and toxicology.
  • Giving researchers something they have never had before: the opportunity to test drugs on functional human tissues before ever administering the drug to a living person; bridging the gulf between preclinical testing and clinical trials.
  • Creating functional, three dimensional tissues that can be implanted or delivered into the human body to repair or replace damaged or diseased tissues.”

Recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Organovo are already proving the commercial value of what is a very new field, but one that is sure to grow.

For more information on investing in 3D printing, check out 3D printing stocks – A guide to investing in 3D printing.