3D organ printing is more than just a dream. More than 100,000 people are on transplant waiting lists in the United States alone. When they do eventually receive donor organs, they still have to face a lifetime of immune-suppressing drugs to prevent organ rejection. But 3D organ printing or bioprinting could put an end to the waiting lists and the drugs. In the future, doctors will be able to print use a person’s own cells to print a replacement organ. There have been several breakthroughs in 3D organ printing.
How Does 3D printing work?
Basically, you start off with a computer-aided drawing. Special computer softwear slices the drawing into thousands of thin layers. As the layers are printed, they stick together slice by slice until you have an object. Many different materials have been used for 3D printing: plastics, silver, titanium, steel, wax. Now bioengineers have developed an off-shoot to 3D printing. That off-shoot is bioprinting.
3D printing has been used to make a gun, guitar, camera lens…you name it. But the human body is far more complicated than these things. First, you need to have the right material. Then you have make sure that it contains blood vessels, nerves and other things that keep it alive. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are using collagen. And they’re using it to make parts of the human heart. Collagen is a protein in the body. It gives structure and supports your cells.
The problem is that collagen starts out as a fluid. If it bioprinted by itself you’d get a puddle. So the researchers used a special gel to hold up the collagen. Once the collagen has had time to solidify, it can be removed. Researchers used this technique to print tiny collagen fibers. They were able to build a small model of the heart’s left ventricle. This is the main pumping chamber of the heart. A few days later, the ventricles were contracting.
In a different research project at Rice University and the University of Washington, researchers made a model of an air sac similar to a lung. The air sac had airways to deliver oxygen to surrounding blood vessels, just like in a lung.
In the future, 3D bioprinting will be used to make tissue for patients waiting for an organ transplant.