It seems like something straight out of Star Trek. 3D printing organs is something that is actually being done today to help save lives. While we are still a bit away from duplicating a complete heart or lung, we are moving towards the ability to do so. The field is every growing and looks very promising.
Complications can arise with normal transplants. There are many factors that need to match before an organ can be transplant into a receiver. Some factors include blood type and size. Still even if all factors match, there is a chance that the organ will be rejected by the body. To make matters worse, there is a time limit on how long the organ can be outside the human body. Within a four hour period of time, a donor has to be matched with the recipient. The organ then needs to get to the hospital which could be hundreds of miles away in time enough for the recipient to get the organ.
3D printing promises to correct this problem. Instead, the organ can be grown on site using the very cells of the recipient. This cuts down dramatically of the chance of rejection.
How does 3D organ printing work?
To understand how it works, the organ can be broken down into two parts. One is the living cells that reside in the organ. The other is the tissue or structure of the organ. The basic idea is to print the structure of the organ and stimulate growth of the recipient’s cells on the structure. The resulting product would be a working organ with the exact DNA of the recipient.
Success has been made in the process of regrowing cells on a structure. Decellularization is a process in which the cells currently living on an organ is stripped away. This happens by using a detergent to clean away the cells. What is left is just a structure or scaffolding. Success has been made in the process of stripping away these cells and regrowing another set of cells on what is left. However, actual application in human trials is problematic. It still requires a donor and it takes times time to strip and regrow cells.
However, the application of 3D printing an organ has been shown to be successful. In fact, it has already been done to save a life. In 2013, newborn baby Kaiba Gionfriddo received a 3D printed splint which allowed the baby to breathe normally. The baby had a rare obstruction in his lungs called bronchial malacia. So far, the child has lived to 18 months and continues to grow normally. Doctors are confident the baby will make a full recovery and the splint will slowly degrade within a few years leaving a healthy organ.
While this isn’t exactly the same has printing a usable heart or lung, it does give hope that someday soon we will advance this technology to a point where that is possible. Soon, waiting lists for organ donors will be a thing of the past.