Monday, July 10, 2017


3D printing has been around since the early 1980s. This process, also known as additive manufacturing is used to create three dimensional objects of almost any shape or geometry, usually from a model that has been created digitally.

This remarkable technology is now being used in medicine, specifically in the field of organ and tissue regeneration, where researchers and scientists all over the world are working to create organs and tissues from a person’s own cells. It is hoped that this will help recreate human organs and tissues in the lab so that they can be used to replace diseased organs in a patient. The need for organ transplants is immense with the waiting list for patients needing a new organ at 117,394 (as of 7/5/17) in the US. On an average, 20 people will die waiting for a transplant every day with a new patient being added to the waiting list every 10 minutes.

What are the main advantages to using 3D printing in organ transplantation?
Let’s start with the problem of organ shortage. Currently, organ failure requires removal of that particular organ and replacing it with another, usually from a brain dead and sometimes a living donor. It is because of a severe lack of available organ donors that we have this huge demand. If 3D printing is able to create human organs, this would completely eliminate the need for a donor, as organs could be manufactured with the patient’s own cells and then be used to replace them.

Another advantage of using 3D printing is potentially eliminating the likelihood of organ rejection. Any organ after transplantation from a genetically different individual runs the risk of being rejected because it is considered “ foreign” by the recipient. In order to overcome this problem, medications known as immunosuppressants are required to prevent rejection. These drugs are not only expensive but also have a lot of side effects. Using a person’s own cells to recreate new organs would potentially eliminate the need for these drugs as the body will not recognize the new organ as “foreign” and hence not reject it.

The “printer” that is being used at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina is called ‘ITOP’ or Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing system. This special machine uses human cells, instead of ink. Data from CT scans and MRIs are fed into ITOP, which uses syringes to lay down successive layers to create a customized scaffolding or skeleton of the organ. This is then seeded with the person’s cells, which are then allowed to grow in an incubator and form an organ.

In a study published a few years ago, bone and muscle tissue printed on the ITOP was shown to have been successfully implanted in rodents. A bioengineering company in San Diego, CA is using this technology to print patches of human livers and other tissues for the purposes of testing drug toxicity. Human tissues that have been successfully bioprinted include multilayered skin, bone, vascular grafts, trachea, heart tissue and cartilage. 3D printed bladders have also been implanted in a few children which have shown good results, one of the first to have been performed in humans.

A major challenge currently is to create complex organs like livers and kidneys. These organs are complex because they have multiple different cells that have different functions, which then combine with arteries, veins, urine tubes (in kidneys) and bile ducts (in livers) to perform life saving functions in a human being. As things stand today, we are a few years away from this being a reality. Till then, we have to rely on the generosity of fellow human beings to help alleviate the organ shortage in this country.

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