Julia Hair was diagnosed with congestive heart failure when she was just 14.
Because of a genetic mutation, she had developed cardiomyopathy, which means that her heart muscle — specifically the left ventricle — was weak and unable to pump blood. She was admitted immediately to the intensive care unit at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, in Los Angeles, California.
About 2,300 heart transplants are performed annually in the U.S., according to the California Transplant Donor Network, but because of the shortage of donors, the average waiting period is anywhere from six months to three years. In recent years, the number of patients needing transplants has doubled, while the number of actual transplants performed has barely increased.
But Julia Hair’s health was declining rapidly and she was running out of time. Many of her symptoms mimicked a patient undergoing chemotherapy — her hair began to thin, she couldn’t keep anything down, and she suffered extreme fatigue. The hospital staff attached IVs to pump her full of medications to strengthen her heart, but she had terrible reactions to some of these drugs.
“I had to keep from dying but be sick enough to receive a transplant.”
Just a few weeks after she was admitted to the hospital, her other major organs began to shut down because of lack of blood supply.
“I felt like I was against a clock that was ticking too fast,” she told LifeZette. “I had to keep from dying but be sick enough to receive a transplant.”
Even patients who are desperate for new organs are ranked in different tiers on the waiting list.
Julia Hair finally received her heart transplant about five weeks after she entered the hospital.
“I felt like God had answered my prayers,” she said. “And I felt bound to make my donor proud because I knew she had given her life.”
But living with a transplant isn’t easy. She has to take a continual dose of immunosuppressant drugs so that her immune system doesn’t attack the foreign organ. She’s dangerously susceptible to illness. And the medications don’t do her body any favors. Studies show they significantly increase the risk for osteoporosis and diabetes.
That’s why new research from the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and companies like BioBots is so exciting for patients like Hair.
Regenerative medicine is just what it sounds like — the search for treatments that will allow cells in damaged organs to grow and repair themselves rather than being substituted by synthetic material or treated with drugs. Researchers at Wake Forest Institute have created what they call biomaterial scaffolding. It creates a bridge within an organ that allows the organ to rebuild, or regenerate, healthy cells.
Using this scaffolding, they can take a sample of actual tissue — smaller than a postage stamp — and bioengineer human organs. They create a detailed design of the organ using advanced imaging technology, and then input that design into a 3D printer. The printer combines the tissue sample with biomaterials and creates a human organ that is compatible with the tissue sample.
For transplant patients, this research could mean no more immunosuppressant medication. These bioengineered organs could fit seamlessly with their genetic makeup.
It takes several hours to print organs or tissue — seven hours to print a kidney.
It takes several hours to print organs or tissue — seven hours to print a kidney. And some organs, such as bladders, tracheas, and skin, are already being used in clinical transplant or grafting trials.
BioBots, a year-old startup company, recently released the first desktop 3D bioprinter. If you can afford to spend $10,000 on a printer, you could begin printing your own tissue samples at home. Traditional 3D printers use ultraviolent ray technology that would kill human cells. But the BioBot printer uses a system of LED lights to cure the materials and keep the cells alive.
“Vascularity is definitely the biggest challenge to be able to create 3D tissues that are relevant for implantation. 3D bioprinting offers tools to better replicate and explore these structures outside of the body, but the broad potential of this technology to offer novel solutions to historical limitations in tissue engineering has only begun to be explored,” said Ricky Solorzano, co-founder and chief technology officer of BioBots.
“The problem has always been access, and by placing the power of 3D biofabrication into the hands of more researchers, with devices that can be easily set up and operated in any research space, at a fraction of the cost, we are empowering more bright minds with the tools they need to find solutions to this cornerstone problem.”
The more complex organs — like kidneys — are still just prototypes and are years away from clinical trials. Robert Langer, professor of biomedical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told LifeZette the obstacles to overcome in order for these organs to be used in clinical trials and transplantation are fourfold — “cell survival, vascularization, innervation, and prevention of rejection.”
Scientists still need to figure out how to connect these bioengineered organs to the body’s circulatory and nervous systems. And creating these cells outside the body is different from helping them survive inside the body. Langer said scientists may be able to use a “controlled release of vascular growth factors or micro fabrication” to mimic the body’s intricate circulatory system.
Still, these organs are helping to expedite the research.
For people like Julia Hair, the research can’t happen soon enough. Technology like this has the potential to not only save lives, but also improve the quality of life for patients who have already received transplants.