For almost 30 years now 3D printing machines have grown from being an industrial tool for rapid prototyping into a multibillion-dollar industry. They have worked their way into every industry and are now starting to print their way into our bodies.
In 2003 Thomas Boland, while a professor of bioengineering at Clemson University, in South Carolina, became the first to customize an inkjet printer into one that was capable of printing human cells in a gel mixture. It didn’t take long for other researchers to start tinkering with versions of their own.
For Scientists like Anthony Atala, a pediatric urologist, the promise of 3D printing organs was irresistible. Atala was the first to create a human organ and successfully implant it, but hand stitching a bladder took time and was difficult to repeat consistently.
Other researchers are using custom-built bioprinters to scan or design objects and then use a printer equipped with syringes to print out successive layers of matter until a three-dimensional object emerges. While traditional 3-D printers tend to work in plastics or wax these printers have the capability to print something that’s alive.
Many of the modern bioprinters use six syringes arranged in a row. One holds a biocompatible plastic that forms an interlocking structure of a scaffold, like the skeleton, and the others can be filled with a gel containing human cells or proteins to promote their growth.
3D printing of organs is also one of the few bio-technologies that enjoys general acceptance by the public. Seventy-four percent of Americans think that bioengineered organs are an “appropriate use” of technology.
John Jackson, an associate professor at the Wake Forest institute oversees the development of a skin-cell printer. This amazing device is designed to print living skin cells directly onto a patient. “Say you have an injury to your skin,” Jackson suggested. “You’d scan that wound to get the exact size and shape of the defect, and you’d get a 3-D image of the defect. You could then print the cells”—which are grown in a hydrogel—“in the exact shape you need to fit the wound.”
Todays printers are able to lay down tissues at the top two layers of skin, making them able to treat most burn wounds. Jackson hopes that they will soon be able to print deeper beneath the skin’s surface – eventually being able to print adipose tissue and deep-rooted hair follicles. He estimates that clinical trials could start within the next five years, pending FDA approval.
Skin-cell printers are just one of the several active projects at the institute that is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, including tissue regeneration initiatives for facial injuries.
The 3D printers are able to print scaffolds for ears that are then printed with cells from an intended patient. The new ear is placed in an incubator where the cells multiply and then implanted onto the patient. After a relativity short period of time, the ear becomes a normal part of the patient’s body.
Researchers are also working on printing and implanting bone and muscles on laboratory animals where they have grown successfully into the surrounding tissue.
The number of 3D printers used my medial staff and researchers are expected to double in the next 5 years. These will be used not only to find new treatments, they will also be used to create the organs that will be used in clinical trials. The trials will be the first steps into a new world when people will look at their bodies like machines. Where patients can order up replacement parts for their body in a similar way that they order a replacement windshield for their Ford.
“Think about it like the Dell model,” said Anthony Atala, a pediatric urologist and the institute’s director, referring to the computer company’s famous “direct” relationship model between consumer and manufacturer. We were sitting in Atala’s office on the fourth floor of the research center. “You’d have companies that exist to process cells, create constructs, tissue. Your surgeon might take a CT scan and a tissue sample and ship it to that company,” he said. After a week or so, an organ would show up in a medical container via UPS and your doctor would call you in to implant it. A brand new nose or kidney – made to order.
“What’s interesting is that there are no real surgical challenges,” Atala said. “There are only the technological hurdles that you’ve got to overcome to make sure the engineered tissue functions correctly in the first place.”
Researchers are getting close with “simple” organs like skin, the external ear and the tube-like trachea. But Atala is most excited about what is around the corner. He envisions a huge bioprinting industry that is capable of mass producing big, complex organs that the body needs to survive like livers or kidneys. The end goal would be to make the long, often fatal wait times and the risk of organ rejection completely obsolete.
AT the moment about eight out of ten patients on the transplant list is in need of a kidney with a wait time of four and a half years for a donor. If researchers like Atala can make 3D printed organs a reality, it could not only mean longer lifespans, but vastly improved quality of life for the millions of people living with chronic diseases.
Noosphere Ventures has always been interested in any technology that improves the lives of others. And with the prospect of giving not only life, but youth to an aging population, Noosphere Ventures in eager to stay on the front lines of this “growing” technology.