The Promise of Printed Organs

Ears, bones, muscle structures, more — science is changing lives

Life and medicine are beginning to look incredibly different. Scientists are printing not only 3D models to enhance research — they’re printing real, transplantable organs that save lives.

While research on printing hearts and other vital organs is largely in the developmental stage, some institutions have successfully used the technology in a number of ways. At Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, teams have printed ear, bone, and muscle structures that have been implanted in animals and proved viable.

The printers use a biodegradable plastic material together with water-based gels that have the cells inside.

“We make ears the size of baby ears. We make jawbones the size of human jawbones,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), as reported. “We are printing all kinds of things,” he said of the university’s North Carolina laboratory.

Dr. Atala and his team were first to implant a functioning human bladder into a patient. They are also the key developers behind the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (ITOP).

Even before actual organs are created, 3D models can be very helpful. One woman had her kidney saved by doctors who practiced on a 3D version to study the best tactic for removing the tumor she had, according to Medical Express.

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Related: 10 Epic 3D Printed Wonders

How exactly do 3D-printed organs or body parts work?

The printers use a biodegradable plastic material together with water-based gels that have the cells inside. The materials are deposited in alternating layers to build the structure and simultaneously inlay the cells into shape. The channels created allow nutrients to pass through and help the user accept whatever the printed device may be. The ITOP system can also integrate information from CT and MRI scans to customize tissues for specific patients.

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Transplant Wait List” source=””]Every 10 minutes someone is added.|Each day, 22 people die waiting.|One donor can save eight lives.|Kidneys top the list of needed organs.[/lz_bulleted_list]

Successful implants worldwide include 3D-printed jaws. A cancer survivor had lost part of his face to radiation, and the new jaw is far more breathable and lighter than other prosthetics — it now allows him the ability to smile, reported. The technology is increasingly being used in spinal surgeries, and a 3D-printed heel bone was just implanted into a patient in South Korea, reported.

The Dubai Health Authority recently announced its plans to implement 3D-printed medical services, which may be in place by the end of the year. Some of the items they hope to start printing are teeth, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and casts.

Three companies — Techshot, nScrypt Inc., and Bioficial Organs — have come together to create a 3D printer that can manufacture tissues and more complex organs in a zero gravity plane. The technology was most recently used on June 14 to create a successful print of cardiac and vascular structures while flying 30,000 feet over the Gulf of Mexico in a zero-gravity aircraft, Techshot reported. The process is pretty amazing — check it out in this video below from WLKY, the local CBS affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky.

[lz_ndn video=31112102]

The goal is to have the technology available in space. A version destined for use in the International Space Station should be ready by 2018, said Techshot.

The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine is funding a great deal of 3D research right now in the hope of integrating regenerative medicine with care offered for military personnel wounded in combat.

The 3D technology is considered essential to better meet the needs of those in failing health. As the population increases, so does the need for organ and tissue donors. Currently, though, the numbers don’t match up. There are far more people waiting for life-saving organs — about 120,000 people in the U.S. right now — than are available, according to Every 10 minutes, a new name is added to that list.

The goal is to close that critical gap, which is often filled with medical complications and heartbreak.

“Despite advances in medicine and technology, and increased awareness of organ donation and transplantation, the gap between supply and demand continues to widen,” the site states. “While national rates of donation and transplant have increased in recent years, more progress is needed to ensure that all candidates have a chance to receive a transplant.”

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