Human organs created by a 3D printer — the whole process sounds like something far off in the future for most of us. It isn’t an easy concept to wrap our minds around.
But you may want to prepare yourself — the technology is here, now. And if initial cases are successful, 3D organ printing could revolutionize not only the way transplant surgeries are done, it could also — someday — significantly reduce the number of people desperately waiting for life-saving organ donations.
Surgeons at Guy’s and St. Thomas Hospital in London recently became the first in the world to use 3D printing to successfully transplant an adult kidney into a child. To be clear, the transplanted organ was not a 3D print; rather, the technology was used to help guide surgeons with a tricky surgery.
The patient, two-year-old Lucy Boucher from Ireland, had developed supra-ventricular tachycardia as a baby, a condition that causes the heart to beat irregularly fast and starve the body of oxygen. The 3D printed models of both Lucy’s abdomen and her dad’s helped surgeons determine the best possible kidney transplant procedure for Lucy, and ultimately minimize risks that would have been greater without the special printing technique.
Lucy and her dad, her adult donor, are said to be doing just fine.
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While this was a first for liver transplants, developments in 3D trend have been in the works for years.
“The medical community is excited about 3D printing because it can be used to print biomaterials on demand,” said Tom Webster, president of the U.S. Society of Biomaterials and chair of the chemical engineering department at Northeastern University’s College of Engineering.
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3D printing is said to be much like conventional printing, but the process prints in layers — or what’s called the “z” direction. The process allows researchers and doctors to print something as important as a human heart.
This past year the journal Nature wrote about the emerging market for printed body parts, which includes everything from kidneys to hands and other made-to-order body parts an organs. Titanium replacement hip joints are an emerging market, as well as polymer bones to reconstruct damaged skulls and fingers.
As the journal reported: “Printed body parts brought in $537 million last year, up about 30 percent on the previous year.” That figure was according to Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a business consultancy firm in Fort Collins, Colorado, that specializes in 3D printing.
But 3D printing for organs is a newer way to help patients. “Researchers are also looking at printing the patient’s own cells and tissue into a 3D matrix to immediately implant,” Webster told LifeZette.
More and more, he said, cells are becoming a focus.
“Stem cells have been printed with biomaterials to promote the regeneration of complex tissues,” said Webster. He adds that while ongoing studies have so far been only been done on animals, researchers have been able to print the exact structure of cartilage needed, and then place the cells in the exact location to mimic natural cartilage.
“This has decreased healing time and increased function in the animal,” Webster said.
Despite the incredible advancements, there is still a long way to go when it comes to 3D printing in medicine.
“The biggest problem is blood supply. At the moment we cannot print blood vessels to keep these organs alive,” said Sarah Boisvert, chief 3D printing officer at Potomac Photonics and a fellow at the Laser Institute of America. “[Organs like] the heart must be made of material that can pump blood around the body. These are no small feats to overcome.”
FDA approvals are also still needed before 3D printing can get widespread implementation. “My estimate is that we are at least 15 years away from 3D printed organs being available,” said Boisvert.
Holding things back are patents and trademarks, according to intellectual property lawyers.
“There is established precedent in patent law that some types of things are so fundamental to everyday life that they should not be patentable,” said Dr. Mason Marks, M.D., an attorney with Knobbe Martens. “For example, a series of cases in the U.S. Supreme Court have established that patents cannot be acquired on products of nature, abstract ideas and natural phenomena.”
Marks says that to obtain a patent on a 3D printed human organ, the invention must prove to be different enough from a natural human organ that it would not be considered a product of nature. And even if one is approved, the patent could be attacked in federal court.
Nonetheless, doctors say the approvals are necessary — and overdue.
“We still need FDA approval for many of the biological applications,” said Webster. “But the ability to quickly print an organ on demand when someone needs it is sure to improve human health.”
3D printing decreases healing time, promotes patient health, and get patients on their feet quicker. “Many of us believe 3D printing will be all around us,” said Webster. “We will be printing everything from a broken light fixture to a new liver to repair a damaged one.”