3D printing organs have been around for decades but it’s still not full-blown yet due to the huge challenges that come along with it.
But, organ 3D printing could change the medical industry big time once it is commercialized.
I understand that you probably heard about 3D organ printing and want to learn more about it.
This page aims to help you understand how 3D printing of organs works. I’ll give you an overview of how it started and how far or near we are from commercializing 3D printed organs.
What Is 3D Printing Organs?
3D printing organ utilizes the techniques used in conventional 3D printing where a computer model is fed into a printer and produces layers of filament like plastics or wax until it completes a 3D object, in this case, organs like ear, heart, or kidney.
The process is also called 3D bioprinting because it combines 3D printing like-techniques, cells, and biomaterials to create living tissues. Its goal is to develop functional human organs that are ready to be transplanted.
However, there is no functional 3D printed organ at the time, but there are many promising projects that support its possibility. One of the first projects revealed in 2011 is Dr. Anthony Atala’s 3D printed kidney. The kidney couldn’t survive for very long, but it shows the huge potential of 3D bioprinting to the world.
3D bioprinting has been applied to skin and living tissue as well like cartilage. In fact, researchers have already developed 3D printed ears that can be implanted.
So, to answer this question, can you 3Dd print organs? – Yes, you can! The researchers have already produced 3D printed blood vessels, heart and kidney. Unfortunately, none of them has been functional for implant yet.
What Was The First 3D Printed Organ?
In the late 1990s, scientists devised a viable technique and process that make 3D printing for organs possible.
In 1999, the scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine used a 3D printer to build a synthetic scaffold of a human bladder.
They coated it with cells from their patients and successfully grew working organs, according to How Stuff Works.
In 2002, scientists printed a miniature but functional kidney that’s capable of filtering blood and producing urine in its animal model. In 2010, Organovo — a bioprinting company based in San Diego printed the first blood vessels. From there, the revolution for 3D bioprinting continues.
In 2019, Prellis Biologics announced an $8.7 million round of funding and some significant advancements that support 3D printed organs. Volumetric Bio also made its own significant progress.
A team of researchers led by bioengineers Jordan Miller from Rice University and Kelly Stevens of the University of Washington with collaborators from UW, Duke University, Rowan University and the design firm Nervous System also unveiled a model of an air sac that works like human lungs.
The model they produced could deliver oxygen to surrounding blood vessels creating vascular networks that mimic the body’s own passageways.
Miller’s team from the Rice University used food dye, which is both synthetic and of natural origin to make powerful biocompatible photo absorbers to produce complex and functional vascular networks within hydrogels.
By adding a food dye that efficiently absorbs light in a given wavelength range, the technique can produce biocompatible gels with intricate internal architecture in minutes, Miller notes. The fast response is advantageous for live cells that do not survive very long and have to be put back in a perfusion culture as quickly as possible.
“Further, our organs actually contain independent vascular networks — like the airways and blood vessels of the lung or the bile ducts and blood vessels in the liver,” Miller, assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University Brown School of Engineering, said in a statement.
“These interpenetrating networks are physically and biochemically entangled, and the architecture itself is intimately related to tissue function. Ours is the first bioprinting technology that addresses the challenge of multivascularization in a direct and comprehensive way.”
What Material Is Used For 3D Printing Organs?
The success of an implant depends on the biomaterial used. Many requirements should be met before a material qualifies for 3D printing organs.
According to one study, the ideal implant material should be biocompatible, inert, mechanically durable, and easily moldable. There is already a vast of biomaterials currently used in medical 3D printing including metals, ceramics, polymers, and composites.
Biomaterials are natural or synthetic substances that are in contact with biological systems and they help repair, replace, or augment any tissue or organ of the body for any period of time.
How Does 3D Printing Organs Work
Bioprinting follows the same printing process as the regular 3D printing, but it’s not as simple as that. It is actually more challenging because the organ contains more than one type of material.
Also, because the material is living tissue, it needs to receive nutrients and oxygen, unlike the regular plastic filaments.
Here’s how 3D printing organs work.
The process starts with a model structure that is created layer-by-layer out of a bioink mixed with living cells or seeded with cells after the print is complete. The models can come from any where a CT or MRI scan, or a computer-generated design (CAD) program or a file downloaded from the internet.
The 3D model file is then fed into a slicer, a specialized kind of computer program that analyzes the geometry of the model and generates a series of thin layers or slices that form into the shape of the original model when stacked vertically.
Cura and Slic3r are examples of the best slicers commonly used in 3D printing. However, there are dedicated slicers for 3D bioprinting. Allevi, a company that creates 3D bioprinters and bioinks has Allevi Bioprint that works as its slicer.
Once the model is sliced, the slices are transformed into path data, stored as a g-code file which will be sent to a 3D bioprinter for printing.
The bioprinter follows instructions in the g-code file in order including the special instructions to control the temperature of the extruders, extrusion pressure, bedplate temperature, crosslinking intensity, and frequency.
What Are The Benefits of 3D Printing Organs?
3D printed organs offer several benefits once they become available. Here are the reasons why many are looking forward to 3D bioprinting.
Hundreds of thousands of patients are waiting for an organ donor for an implant.
But the waiting list is too long and the waiting time could take months to years. Also, finding a match is not that easy. With 3D bioprinting, one can replicate the patient’s organ using the patient’s tissues for compatibility making the whole process faster.
Aside from speed, 3D printed organs tend to be cheaper than the actual cost of regular transplants. As mentioned, a standard kidney transplant can cost you hundreds of thousands, but a bioprinter that can produce 3D-printed human organs only costs $10,000 and it can be used several times. The cost is even expected to drop as the technology evolves over the years.
A 3D bioprinter is very flexible because it can produce any type of organs as long as it fits within its build volume. It will simply follow what’s in your model.
So, if you need a heart, kidney, lungs, or even ear, send the model to the bioprinter and it will deliver you an organ the way you exactly designed it.
Tangible design and testing
3D bioprinting plays an important role in training future doctors and preparing them for actual and complex operations.
3D images provide models that look realistic and mimic actual human parts which make the operational process more accurate and effective.
Training on human-like 3D printed parts is more effective compared to using animal organs.
Another impressive thing about 3D bioprinting is the quality it produces. Unlike traditional manufacturing that could go wrong, bioprinting delivers high-quality organs as long as you provide the printer with the right model. It will deliver just that.
Since 3D printing prints the parts in succession each part can be monitored to ensure that there is no room for errors. You can also catch it in real-time which is very important when producing human organs.
Due to consistency and quality, you can mitigate the risks in manufacturing, which is very important when producing sensitive body parts like heart or kidney. Product designers can verify the product prototypes before starting on substantial manufacturing investments that can be potentially disastrous.
When Will 3D Printing Organs Be Available?
3D printing organs offer a huge change in the medical field that’s why many are already looking forward to taking advantage of it.
Imagine this, instead of waiting for a suitable donor or take the risk of the body rejecting the transplanted organ.
You can produce a 3D printed human organ that is fabricated specifically for the patient to replace the faulty one.
3D bioprinting is a potential solution to a lack of organ donors because it aims to produce fully functional and viable organs for transplant.
When it comes to when it will be ready for commercialization, it might take a few years or a decade and more, but there are already tons of successful projects that show 3D bioprinting is possible.
For instance, in 2015, researchers from Northwestern University successfully implanted bioprinted ovaries in mice to address fertility issues. In 2018, a team of scientists from the University of Newcastle successfully 3D printed human corneas.
And in 2019, Israeli researchers created the first 3D printed heart made from human cells. It is very small, just about the size of a cherry, and doesn’t beat but it is considered a huge advancement in the treatment for heart disease especially that donor organs are in short supply. But it might take time to make a 3D organ printer available in the market.
Previous 3D printed hearts had no cells or blood vessels, but the latest one has cells, blood vessels, chambers, and other structures a heart needs to function normally. Dvir and his team took fatty tissue from patients and converted the fat cells into stem cells.
They were then added to a gel and further processed to be heart cells. The cell-containing “bio ink” was added to a 3D printer and used to build the experimental organ layer by layer.
Considering the progress in 3D bioprinting, producing fully functional bioprinted human organs could become a reality in the next 10 years.
In fact, Dvir and his team’s next target is to teach the 3D printed hearts to function normally and then transplant them to rats if they work. After that, they will explore the feasibility of 3D printing larger hearts with the ultimate goal of building functional hearts for a human body. When it’s ready, they’ll have human trials before officially endorsing it.
“Maybe, in 10 years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely,” Tal Dvir, a researcher with Tel Aviv University’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, the leader of the team of scientists who created the heart, told NBC News MACH in an email.
In the same year, the researchers from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Asia University published a study entitled “Print me an organ: Why are we not there yet.”
The paper explained why the industry is still lagging behind in the bioprinting of human organs is due to the complexities in tissue-specific extracellular matrices and the tissue maturation process. There are still technical difficulties that need to be addressed for a 3D organ printer to be fully accessible.
“While 3D bioprinting is still in its early stages, the remarkable leap it has made in recent years points to the eventual reality of lab-grown, functional organs. However, to push the frontiers of medicine we must overcome the technical challenges in creating tissue-specific bio-inks and optimizing the tissue maturation process.
This will ultimately have a huge impact on patients’ lives, many of whom may be reliant on the future of 3D bioprinting,” said Professor Chua Chee Kai, lead author of the paper from SUTD.
How Much Does It Cost To 3D Print An Organ?
There is a huge demand for organs and 900,000 estimated death due to it. The figure could have been prevented with engineered organs.
For instance, there were 109, 000 men, women, and children on the national transplant waiting list as of September 2020 and 17 people die waiting for a transplant, every 10 minutes, according to Organdonor.gov.
According to the National Foundation for Transplants, a standard kidney transplant can cost one an average of $300,000 which is too expensive compared to a bioprinter that creates 3D printed organs and costs as little as $10,000.
And the cost is expected to drop as the technology evolves over the next couple of years.
There is a lot of positive progress in terms of 3D printing organs, but at the time, there are no functional 3D printed human organs that are ready to be transplanted.
Although 3D bioprinters were able to produce heart, kidney, and other parts of the human body, the researchers are still working to come up with a fully functional 3D printed human organ that is ready for an implant.
3D bioprinting offers a cheaper and faster solution for medical transplants. At present, thousands are waiting for transplant donors that may cause them hundreds of thousands of dollars. But with the use of 3D printers the cost and waiting time can be drastically reduced because the organs can be produced right away.
The scientists and researchers are hopeful that 3D bioprinting will soon be used in creating organs to address the huge demand for it. Also, this will make the transplant process faster, cheaper, and safer.