I’m sure we’ve all been intrigued by the progress that’s being made on 3D printing organs. If you’re like me, the idea blows you away when you see mention of it on Twitter or you see the concepts on a show like Grey’s Anatomy. The fact that we can 3D print an organ at all is astonishing and provides some really interesting opportunities for research. However, we’re quite a ways from actually being able to 3D print an organ that we can transplant into a human body.
Transplanting a 3D printed organ into a human body is indeed the holy grail of 3D printing organs. There are so many people who die every year as they wait on the organ transplant list (Side Note: Sign up to be a donor). If we could 3D print them an organ, we could possibly save thousands of people’s lives.
While TV shows and mentions on Twitter make it sound pretty easy, a deeper dive into the 3D printing of organs shows how complex the process really is to create a human organ that actually functions. This was incredibly illustrated by this article on 3DPrint.com that talks about the need to not only 3D print the organ, but also to create the vascular network that’s needed to furnish the organ with an ongoing blood supply. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
With that said, there is still one major hurdle to get us from the tiny sheets of 3D printed organ tissue, to that of entire 3D printed organs, which could one day be created by a patient’s own stem cells, and transplanted to save their life. That hurdle is the vascularisation of those organs. Every cell within a human organ, such as the liver, kidney or heart are within a hair’s width of a blood supply. This is an incredibly complex setup, one which up until now, researchers have found to be a nightmare to overcome when dealing with bioprinting. Without an adequate vascular network, the cells would be starved of oxygen, as well as a means to excrete waste, causing them to die and making the printed organs worthless.
The rest of the story is always more complex than the headlines. The great part is that in that same article the talk about some work by scientists from the Universities of Sydney, Harvard, Stanford and MIT working together to 3D print a network of stable capillaries. Even the description of the process is complex, but basically they’ve figured out a way to create tiny spaces where blood could flow.
Stories like this are extremely exciting, but also show just how far we have to go before we’ll be able to 3D print an organ. Really amazing work.