The 3D printer has won the hearts of manufacturers for its ability to create detailed products without the need for expensive and time-consuming prototyping. Everything from prosthetics to engines to football cleats have spun out of the technology.
But it couldn’t create human organs, could it? Well, yes, it can. Scientists claim to have recently enhanced the performance and stability of 3D-printed organs, including a heart — a development that would excite the Tin Man of “The Wizard of Oz.”
The real-life implications of organs created by 3D printing are vast and revolutionary. The printer could quickly produce organs to those in need of a transplant, and it could enhance the skills of surgeons by letting them practice on copied organs — innovations many would say are worth copying on a large scale.
Connecting Printed Vessels With Cells
To be clear, the organs aren’t entirely the products of additive manufacturing, the term to describe 3D printing, but a recent development with the technology signals it will probably have a large role in advancing copied organs.
Creating organs through additive manufacturing had until now been largely unsuccessful. As described by Cosmos, laboratories have grown so-called organoids for the past decade. These miniaturized versions of the brain, heart and kidney help scientists study cancer, dementia and heart attacks. But with the models unable to expand beyond the size of a lentil, they couldn’t incorporate the tubes that mimic blood vessels. Without those tubes, oxygen and nutrients struggle to reach the core of the organ.
It seemed as if the dream to produce ready-made full-sized organs in a lab would have to remain just that, a dream. But a recent breakthrough that combines human stem cells with a 3D-printed vascular channel could overcome the structural issues.
A new method of replication solves the size challenge by integrating 3D-printed vascular channels into living matrices of stem cells that form organ building blocks, according to the scientists who devised the technique SWIFT (sacrificial writing into functional tissue). The 3D printer infuses ink and gelatin into a matrix and the mix is then heated, melting the ink and leaving a channel that is then lined with cells found in human vessels. Stir in oxygen and nutrients and you have an organ. The researchers kept one such organ, a 1.5-centimeter mini-heart, beating on its own for more than a week.
The Opportunities Are Worth Repeating
The researchers — from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) — say SWIFT produces organ-specific tissues that have high cell density and functionality, a critical step toward large-scale and safe organ replacement and other uses.
“This is an entirely new paradigm for tissue fabrication,” Mark Skylar-Scott, a research associate at the Wyss Institute and one of the study’s co-authors, told ScienceDaily. “Rather than trying to 3D-print an entire organ’s worth of cells, SWIFT focuses on only printing the vessels necessary to support a living tissue construct that contains large quantities of (organ building blocks), which may ultimately be used therapeutically to repair and replace human organs with lab-grown versions containing patients’ own cells.”
As ScienceDaily noted, 20 people die daily while waiting for an organ transplant in the U.S. More than 30,000 transplants are performed each year but it’s still not enough to whittle down the long waiting lists of those in need of a suitable organ. More than 113,000 people are currently awaiting word that their wait has ended. Artificial organs could lessen or eliminate the shortage.
Replicated organs could also give doctors an opportunity to practice difficult surgical procedures, a chance to enhance their skills without fear of doing harm to human patients. Similarly, 3D-printed organs could remove the need to try out new pharmaceutical drugs on human or even animal test subjects.
The ink is barely dry on the Harvard researchers’ test, but the scientific world is hoping their discovery can be replicated for years to come.