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3D printing organs may save more lives

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Posted at 11:08 AM, Mar 10, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-10 11:08:28-04

The use of 3D printing is something that has infiltrated creative minds all over the world to print something out of the ordinary. It has gone from pizza and materialistic items to possibly life saving resources.

On average, 21 people die every day in America because an organ was not available. Thus, researchers are now using the same technology to construct hearts, kidneys, and other human organs. The power of 3D printing reaches far beyond generic products, and it will hopefully provide tissues and organs to all in need.

According to the Huffington Post, Dr. Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is the future of bioprinting.

Atala’s team has already been successful in engineering bladders, cartilage, vaginas, skin, and urine tubes in the laboratory. Not only have the organs and tissues been a tremendous change in bioprinting, but they are also showing success once implanted in patients. As of right now, the aim is to perfect the engineering process, and solve the shortage of donor organs with regenerative medicine.

According to Atala, the goal is to foster organs from the patient’s own cells; therefore, there would not be rejection issues from the body, and the powerful anti-rejection drugs would not be needed. Should this be perfected, customized organs would prove to be advantageous.

For this process to occur, a biopsy of the organ that is set to be replaced must be done.  With this biopsy, certain cells that have regenerative potential are isolated and multiplied. Then, the cells are mixed with a liquid substance that contributes oxygen and nutrients to keep them alive. A printer cartridge is then filled with a biomaterial that will be printed into the organ or tissue-shaped structure. The format of this structure is designed on a computer using the patient’s medical scans.

When the print button is hit, the printer begins to build the structure up layer by layer, while embedding cells into each of the layers. When cells receive the correct mixture of nutrients and growth, and are placed in the correct environment, they are able to perform their natural functions. Depending on the structure, two or more forms of cells may be necessary.

So far, scientists have been successful in engineering flat structures like skin, tubular systems like urine tubes and blood vessels, and hollow creations like bladders. Additionally, they have created solid organ structures including a liver, kidney, and pancreas. The issue as of now is that learning to grow the billions of cells necessary to manufacture these organs, and how to supply new organs with oxygen until they are placed into the body. Yet, scientists are researching viable options such as printing oxygen-generating materials and blood vessels into the structures, or printing micro-channels to maximize the diffusion of nutrients and oxygen from nearby tissues.

Although it may be decades before complex organs like a heart can printed, scientists are working hard to refine the printing process. Although steps have just begun, scientists have already engineered systems that are having an immediate impact on medical science, and with this progress we are steps away from preventing death due to lack of organs.

-Meghan Puryear