More than 121,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. New advancements in 3D printing (also called “bioprinting”) could change that, improving and saving lives with tissue grown outside the human body.
Organovo, 3D biotechnology company, and Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM), part of an academic medical center, are two organizations on the path to using 3D printing to create human organs.
San Diego-based Organovo designs and creates functional tissue using proprietary 3D bioprinting technology. The company’s approach is to print tiny samples of tissue using human cells. Organovo prints those cells in a structure enabling them to interact, form and evolve. Michael Renard, the company’s executive VP of commercial operations, says they have succeeded in printing “a variety of tissues, including lung, bone, peripheral nerve, cardiac and skeletal muscle, and blood vessel.”
While printing tissue is far from printing a ready-made heart or kidney, this method gives Organovo a foundation for developing transplantable organs. In January 2014, Organovo made its first delivery of 3D printed liver tissue to an outside lab. This liver tissue won’t grow into a fully functioning organ or live in a human body. It may, however, become a vital part of pharmaceutical research.
Every oral medication has to pass a liver toxicity test. According to the Food and Drug Administration, liver toxicity is “the most common cause for the discontinuation of clinical trials on a drug, as well as the most common reason for an approved drug’s withdrawal from the marketplace.” With the average drug requiring more than a decade and $4 billion to $5 billion to make it to market, Organovo’s liver tissue samples can be used to test drugs earlier in the trials and potentially save money by weeding out failures before they get to human trials.
The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is working on engineering tissues, organs, and cell therapies in 30 areas of the body using 3D printing. One project, part of a $75 million effort funded by the military with participation from almost 30 institutions, involves developing a printer to graft skin directly to burn victims.
Researchers recognize that these are just the first steps on the road to bioprinting transplantable organs. Renard says that building tissues of larger mass will require the industry “to figure out the process of how to feed that tissue, and that becomes a process of introducing a vascular and capillary system.”
WFIRM director Dr. Anthony Atala acknowledges that bioprinting organs for human use won’t happen anytime soon, but says that research is proceeding into printing increasingly complex structures: flat structures (like skin), tubular structures (like blood vessels), hollow structures (like the stomach or bladder), and finally the most complex organs (like the heart, liver and kidneys).
Another leading bioengineering researcher, Dr. Stuart Williams of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, predicted last November that a 3D printer will be able to print an entire heart from a patient’s own cells within a decade. Succeeding at any of these experiments will potentially save thousands of lives and millions of dollars with the long-term goal of one day bringing an end to the organ transplant waiting list.
This article was originally written by Michael Craig for Forbes PTCVoice.