In this article we will discuss about the technologies used in the 3D printing of human organs with the use of stem cells, looking at what stage of development this science is at. How long will it be possible before printing a new heart? Is it possible to use these developing technologies to print a new limb for a patient based on the patient’s own stem cells?
Many scientists just a decade ago thought that it would be another 50 years before generating something as complex as a new heart could be possible.
Now leading experts think it could be as little as 10 years because of the great strides being made in advancements of regenerative medicine and stem cell research. Here we look at the potentials of 3D printing Bio-technologies and how this can eventually be used to print body parts and human limbs.
Wake Forest University
Ever since I started looking at regrowing lost limbs in humans after the Boston Bombing attacks, I came across Wake Forest University. This included the research of Dr A. Atala with printing of a kidney, cartilage, tissues and ears. They have also been involved in research of how to regenerate a missing Vagina canal for women born with this condition.
Outside of Wake Forest there is now new developments for regeneration of those whom have suffered the horrific act of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) where some or all of the clitoris was removed.
3D Printing of Organs
In North Carolina researchers at Wake Forest have produced a 3D printer technology that can ‘print’ tissues, organs and bones that can potentially be implanted into a patient. You can find out more of this research that has been published in the scientific journal called Nature Biotechnology.
Based on this kind of research the printer acts almost the same as typical 3D printers. It uses a controlled computer nozzle to imprint upon layers of materials in a very precise pattern. These embedded layers eventually condense and harden to produce whatever you are trying to print.
Most typical 3D printers will put down layers of molten metals and plastics, however, Wake Forest’s printers put down what is known as hydrogels. These hydrogels are a water based solution that contain human cells. The printer has multiple nozzles some use the hydrogels and others use biodegradable materials which is needed to give the tissue a printing structure along with strength.
These supporting materials dissolve with tissues incubating in the machine. After this process is complete it may then be possible to implant into the patient.
Advancements of 3D Printing Technologies
3D printers are not a new concept and have been around for some time since their initial inception in the 1980s, however, now they are starting to get more mainstream as the costs have come down and the technology has become more advanced and practical to use. Basically more readily available.
You can print all kinds of things, food has also been experimented on where a McDonalds cheese burger was printed and eatable. Granted a 3D printer is not in everyones home yet but this is coming.
In the future you will not need to necessarily buy physical items over the internet and wait for them to be shipped. Instead you will download the data schematics of the product and use your 3D printer at home to print your product. Say for example a pair of shoes or some other item of clothing.
After printing and you try on the new clothing for size and it does not fit, you will make adjustments and then print again until you get the right fit, then you will make your final purchase.
At Wake Forest, the researchers have performed three dimensional scanning of jawbones, muscles and human ears that allows the digital templates for their printers to operate on. A cartilage of a muscle, jawbone and an ear-shaped piece is printed out and then these were implanted in to mice.
What is very significant in this line of research that we are discussing here, is they have been able to print out tissues that is able to accommodate blood vessels.
This means that they can receive nutrients and oxygen that the cells need to become alive and thrive.
This has been one of the show stoppers and challenges in the past for many of these 3D printing technologies that have tried to print living tissues for regeneration.
However, according to this research, the printed objects did not show any signs of necrosis or cells dying within the tissue.
Anthony Atala at Wake Forest
One of the leading researchers whom I have followed for sometime is Dr. Anthony Atala. In a presentation at TED he discussed the technologies that they were working on with human regeneration of body parts. In the following video presentation he discusses the potentials and shows the human kidney that they had successfully printed.
The kidney was of course not functioning but it demonstrated the potentials of what is yet to come in the near future, with stem cells and regeneration, combined with 3D printing technologies.
The above video was presented back in 2013 but in the current findings discussed here, Dr. Atala points out that the future development of the integrated organ printer is being focused on the production of tissues for eventual clinical use for humans, along with the building of more complex tissues and organs.
He also points out that when printing tissues and human organs then you need to make sure in the final testing stages that the tissues and human organs are going to survive. Their research would indicate the feasibility of printing muscle, bone and cartilage for the patient. They will be using similar strategies to print solid organs as their research expands and grows.
Wake Forest are not the only ones researching in this endeavor and there are many other groups working on such printing technologies for medical purposes.
So when will we see practical applications of these technologies being used on patients? The researchers at Wake Forest say that further development is required before its organs they are printing can be tested on humans.
The US FDA has yet to approve any 3D printing applications for use inside the body but it is very much interested in the scientific progress of this topic.
BioPrinting: New Area of Medicine
Bioprinting is a new exciting area of medicine that is starting to take off. It works by scientists harvesting human cells from stem cells (or biopsies), these are allowed to multiply in a petri dish. This becomes a resulting mix like a biological printing ink that is fed into the 3D printer.
This three-dimensional printer is programmed to arrange the different types of cells, along with other materials into an intended 3D shape.
Researchers are hoping that when placed in the body these 3D cells that are printed will then integrate into existing tissues inside the body.
3D Printing of a Limb
I was reading a company that specializes in using 3D printing technologies for prosthetic limbs but they are specifically designed for the patient with unique styles, using coloured patterns and tattoos.
From a distance or at a quick glance it can look like someone has a complex tattoo imagery and can blend in with what they are wearing.
However, interestingly this company mentioned that eventually they would start to print a real limb based on the persons own stem cells.
At the moment 3D printing technologies are not advanced enough to print something as complex as a living limb. However, printing of a real limb is the next logical step and is something scientists are actively working on.
They are not there yet with printing replacement organs that can be placed inside the patient. At least not yet, but it is coming along very soon and it will transform the industry with the massive shortage of donors being a major issue at the moment.
What do you think about this research? Do you know someone whom has had a similar treatment are is in need of such a medical breakthrough?