Since the advent of the 3D printer, many industries have been discovering innovative methods to enhance human life. From toys and models to food applications by NASA, 3D printers are proving to be incredibly versatile. One of those industries that has experienced some of the most promising of discoveries is that of health. At the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, researchers have announced that it’s possible to print “living” tissue and organs. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at the claim and how it’s possible to recreate human tissue viable for everyday use.Meeting the Team Behind the Project
The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, located in North Carolina, has been the home of notable innovations in the past. Among other, these scientific accomplishments include lab-grown vaginas. Bone, muscle tissue and cartilage have been discovered to function normally when implanted into animal subjects. Another notable accomplishment by the Wake Forest team is that of creating the building blocks of a human bladder. Led by Professor Anthony Atala, the team is confident in continued development and success for what 3D printing can accomplish.
The Technology Behind 3D Printing Living Tissue
The Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System (ITOP) is more complex than your basic 3D printer that is seen at various office supply stores. Although the technology is similar, the components are much different.
The advantage of using the ITOP system for organ and tissue replacement is that parts can be fitted for patients with incredible precision. Should someone need a replacement bone, an exact measurement can be taken and printed without the complications that come with bio transplants or plastic surgery. Instead of a synthetic implant, the part becomes a living piece of the human body.
ITOP utilizes bio-degradable plastic and water-based gels that contain human cells and encourage growth. The system recreates tissue formations while using microchannels within the material. These passageways allow oxygen and nutrients to flow throughout the structure. As time continues, the supporting materials degrade safely in the body as new tissue and blood vessels begin to develop naturally. The Wake Forest group reported the findings in Nature Biotechnology.
This has been one of the most difficult aspects of keeping tissue “alive” in order to conduct a successful transplant. Without active cells, the human body could reject the printed part. It has been discovered that printed components could become starved if the printed tissue is thicker than 0.2 millimeters. By creating a printed mesh of tissue complete with microchannels, the body parts would receive the needed nutrients and oxygen in order to remain viable. “You’re basically creating a vascular network with a printer,” said Dr. Anthony Atala in an interview for STAT.
Recent trials demonstrated how a human-sized ear could be implanted on a rat. The ear began to develop its own cartilage and blood vessels while nerves began to grow on their own. Another noteworthy success was that of grafting skull fragments onto rats using the same process. The strength and durability of these bone fragments is comparable to natural biological counterparts.
Other Adaptations from Other Organizations
The work performed by Prof Atala isn’t the only piece of evidence for successful organ printing. At the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, Todd Goldstein is also working on using 3D bioprinting to create implantable tracheas.
Manufacturers are also getting on-board of this medical treatment. BioBots, a company specializing in bioprinters and bioinks, had recently released a two-head printer to accommodate researchers for 3D printing human organs. According to BioBots, “we now have the capabilities to print cells in predetermined 3D architectures.”
What the Future Holds for 3D Printing Body Parts
Although a great deal of success has been experienced on a small scale, the Wake Forest team are confident that more complex tissues and solid organs are in the future. Ultimately, the team hopes to print parts directly into a living patient. However, the work is far from over as there is a lot of research and development that needs to be done before such applications are possible.
As bioprinting gains ground, the potential for organ replacement is nothing short of impressive. Many speculate how this form of technology can be used to reduce, if not eliminate, the need for organ transplant lists. Organs may be printed and customized per individual case while possibly saving many lives. Only time will tell as Atala, and the many others involved in bioprinting, continues work to improve the stability of humanity.
About the author:
Matthew Young is a freelance tech journalist and blogger hailing from Boston. He is passionate about new, emerging tech in the industry. When Matthew is not busy writing about awesome new technology, he usually spends time fiddling with his camera and learning a thing or two about photography. You can reach Matthew on Twitter @mattbeardyoung