Companies are spending on 3-D print solutions. As noted by Forbes, 90 percent of organizations believe 3-D printing offers a competitive advantage, with 47 percent seeing greater return on investment than last year and 72 percent expecting to spend more on the technology through 2018.
The challenge? Expanding print’s potential. While 3-D prototyping has launched a new industrial revolution, there’s now a trend toward 3-D bioprinting. A major benefit of 3-D bioprinting includes replacing organs or creating viable biological structures capable of encouraging tissue replication. This is no easy feat, but the recent development of “super soft” materials could help solve the hard problem of creating artificial organs.
Heart of the Matter
3-D printing is already used to empower human beings. For example, advancements in printing techniques and materials have created a market for custom-built artificial limbs designed to give Paralympic athletes mobility and utility much closer to typical body function than previous generations of prosthetics could, according to 3DPrint.com.
Inside the body, however, unique challenges emerge. If printed organs and tissues don’t match the composition of internal structures, implantation could result in rejection or outright failure. As noted by IDTechEx, lack of tissue vascularization can be a major issue as well. Without vasculature to transport nutrients and oxygen freely, tissues and organs suffer. While there are several methods of using 3-D bioprinting to create artificial vasculature, the complex design of vasculature can be difficult to replicate.
Print speed is a problem that can also be attributed to the complexity of living tissue. If tiny, complex structures take too long to replicate, cells may become compromised.
Organ and tissue material has also been difficult to replicate. Hard plastics are easy to work with since they can be heated, shaped, molded and then cooled. Complex organic structures, meanwhile, must be incredibly soft yet able to hold their shape under stress.
Humans have an unstoppable drive to solve “impossible” problems, so it’s no surprise that researchers are making significant strides in 3-D printing artificial organs. As noted by Design News, advancements in sheer computer power and throughput have helped tackle the issue of complexity. Data from CT or MRI scans converted to printable form no longer suffer complexity loss, allowing for the creation of exact replicas.
According to Inverse, a team from Rutgers University has created a water-based hydrogel that allows for the creation of cells that change shape in response to temperature fluctuations, just like those in the human body. Similarly, research in Switzerland has led to “functional living ink” (or “flink”), which contains both hydrogel and living bacteria that can be used in biomedical applications, according to Chemical & Engineering News.
Imperial College London researchers may have finally cracked a critical breakthrough: Super soft 3-D printed tissue. According to Science Daily, the team uses solid carbon dioxide to rapidly cool hydrogel ink immediately after 3-D bioprinting. Once thawed, the material matches body tissue softness but doesn’t collapse under its own weight.
An Artificial Future?
What does this mean for the future of artificial organs? Super soft printed tissues could be used to create similarly soft scaffolds that encourage tissue regeneration without triggering immune system rejection. The technique could also be used to grow stable stem cells, highly valued for their ability to change form and function. Since these scaffolds are super soft, they reduce the strain on biological processes during the already-stressful period of new organ adaptation and integration, according to Science Daily.
Take it a step further, and you’re talking about full-on 3-D printed human hearts created using patients’ own cells. According to Fast Company, the benefits up for grabs here are substantial. Since these artificial organs are the exact same size and genetic makeup as their organic progenitors, the need for immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection would be substantially reduced. And as the cost of 3-D printing comes down thanks to market-volume increases, access to transplant hearts is no longer limited by the number of organ donors.
The hard problem of organ transplant is getting a soft solution. New 3-D printing techniques mean better organs, superior scaffolds and the potential for healthcare solutions based on biology and driven by human ingenuity.