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3D Printing Aims to Deliver Organs on Demand

Health & Wellness  (tags: AlternativeMed, children, death, disease, drugs, medicine, research, safety, science, study, treatment, society )

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Dying patients could someday receive a 3D-printed organ made from their own cells rather than wait on long lists for the short supply of organ transplants.

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Kit B (276)
Friday October 4, 2013, 8:45 am
Photo Credit: Fraunhofer IGB - Live Science

Dying patients could someday receive a 3D-printed organ made from their own cells rather than wait on long lists for the short supply of organ transplants. Such a futuristic dream remains far from reality, but university labs and private companies have already taken the first careful steps by using 3D-printing technology to build tiny chunks of organs.

Regenerative medicine has already implanted lab-grown skin, tracheas and bladders into patients body parts grown slowly through a combination of artificial scaffolds and living human cells. By comparison, 3D-printing technology offers both greater speed and computer-guided precision in printing living cells layer by layer to make replacement skin, body parts and perhaps eventually organs such as hearts, livers and kidneys.

"Bioprinting organs for human uses won't happen anytime soon," said Tony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. "But for tissues we've already implanted in patients structures we've made by hand we're now going back to those tissues and saying 'We know we can do better with 3D printing.'

From skin to hearts

The difficulty of building organs with 3D printing falls into about four levels of complexity, Atala said. Flat structures with mostly one type of cell, such as human skin, represent the easiest organs to make. Second, tubular structures with two major cell types, such as blood vessels, pose a greater challenge.

A third level of complexity arises in hollow organs such as the stomach or bladder, each with more complicated functions and interactions with other organs. Finally, the fourth level of complexity includes organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys the ultimate goal for bioprinting pioneers.

"With bioprinting, we're approaching it the same way we did with other organs," Atala told LiveScience. "We're going after flat structures first like skin, tubular structures like blood vessels next, and then hollow, nontubular organs like bladders."

Regenerative medicine has already proven it can implant lab-grown versions of the first three types of organs into patients. Atala and other researchers hope that 3D printing's efficiency can scale up the manufacturing of such organs for widespread use, as well as help make hearts, livers and kidneys suitable for implanting in patients.

How to print an organ

Atala's group previously built lab-grown organs by creating artificial scaffolds in the shape of the desired organ and seeding the scaffold with living cells. They used the technique to grow artificial bladders first implanted in patients in 1999, but spent the last decade building 3D printers that can print both an artificial scaffold and living cells at the same time a process that involves liquid "glue," which hardens into the consistency of gummy candy as it dries out.

Other labs think they can bypass the artificial scaffolds by harnessing living cells' tendencies to self-organize. That avoids the challenge of choosing scaffold material that can eventually dissolve without affecting the living cells, but leaves the initial structure of living cells in a delicate position without the supporting scaffold.

"If you do what we do with putting cells in the right place, you don't start with anything structural to hold things up," said Keith Murphy, chairman and CEO of Organovo, a startup San Diego-based company. "For us, the challenge is the strength and integrity of the structure."

Organovo scientists have experimented with building tiny slices of livers by first creating "building blocks" with the necessary cells. The company's 3D printers can then situate the building blocks in layers that allow the living cells to start growing together.

Stem cells taken from a patient's fat or bone marrow can provide the 3D-printing material for making an organ that the body won't reject, Murphy said. His company worked with Stuart Williams, executive and scientific director of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville, Ky., on extracting the stem cells from fat.

The tiniest challenges

The ability to print full-size functioning organs depends on figuring out how to seed 3D-printed organs with both large and small blood vessels that can supply nutrient-rich blood to keep living tissue healthy. So far, no lab has succeeded in 3D-printing organs with the network of blood vessels necessary to sustain them. [Photos: Printing Tiny Organs for 'Body on a Chip']

Organovo has begun working toward that goal by experimenting with 3D-printing blood vessels 1 millimeter or larger in width. The company has also built tissues containing tiny blood vessels about 50 microns or smaller (1 millimeter is equal to 1,000 microns) enough to sustain a millimeter-thick chunk of organ.

Even the best 3D printers remain limited when working on the tiniest scales of building blood vessels and organs. But Williams, head of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute's effort to create a 3D-printed heart, agreed with Organovo that the solution involves harnessing the self-organization tendencies of living cells.

"We will be printing things on the order of tens of microns, or more like hundreds of microns, and then cells will undergo their biological developmental response in order to self-organize correctly," Williams said. "Printing is only going to take us partway."

Beyond organ implants

For now, bioprinting pioneers hope to make use of even the smallest 3D-printed organs. Atala's lab recently received U.S. Department of Defense funding for a collaborative project aimed at printing tiny hearts, livers and kidneys to form a connected "body on a chip" ideal for testing possible drugs and the effects of diseases or chemical warfare agents on the human body.

Organovo has already started developing a 3D-printed liver model for testing the safety and efficacy of drugs. The startup company is also creating cancerous versions of living tissue models for testing cancer drugs.

The bioprinting revolution could eventually begin to deliver "tissue on demand" within the next 10 or 15 years, Murphy said. That may not fulfill the wildest of organ implantation dreams, but for many patients, it may prove life-changing enough.

"You'll see a heart muscle patch, a blood vessel for bypass or a nerve graft to bridge a gap in a nerve," Murphy said.

By: Jeremy Hsu | Live Science Contributor | Live Science Magazine |

You can follow Jeremy Hsu

Theodore Shayne (56)
Friday October 4, 2013, 9:34 am
Cybernetics can be fun...yes kids it's amazing and fun for the whole family. All kidding aside it's very promising.

Sue H (7)
Friday October 4, 2013, 9:36 am
What a blessing this would be. On the other hand, how would this impact the overpopulation problem?

JL A (281)
Friday October 4, 2013, 9:40 am
I like this intended purpose a whole lot more than for faxing guns.

Bryna Pizzo (139)
Friday October 4, 2013, 10:05 am
Thank you for the amazing news.

Aurea Aurea Walker (226)
Friday October 4, 2013, 10:38 am
Science is great and offers wonderful opportunities, but between now and when this new technology becomes
available, we need to focus on increasing organ donation.

Sheryl G (363)
Friday October 4, 2013, 1:14 pm
This is something wonderful for the future and is hope for those who will be here in the future. I can't help but be mindful of that little girl that was on the list for organ donation but because she was under 12 couldn't get helped from the adult organ list. Due to public pressure and tireless efforts by her family, for her it was over-ruled and an organ given to her before she died. So how can that be a bad thing, will someone worry about overpopulation when a child is dying.

If people are concerned about overpopulation I think that the Affordable Care Act includes contraception is a wonderful thing, but too many others fought it, some even want to eliminate contraception coverage or even to have it under any circumstance. I don't worry about saving a child's life what I do worry on is these people on the fringes that force people to have children they do not want to bring into this world.

I also think that we need to be more concerned about the people who join things like the quiver movement and those who raise children off in these religious towns having baby after baby and marrying these young girls before they have a chance to have a life of their own and determine what they may want from their life. That is more of an area I'd be more concerned of the overpopulation. Education is key to keeping our population at a good level, and we are failing at that with all the cut backs in our educational system from Head Start through our Universities.

Yes, Aurea, organ donation is most important to still keep in mind until something like this becomes the lay of the land rather than some distant hope. There is a website you can sign onto and get information for organ donation under most days.

However right now this is what it is saying.......

Due to the lapse in government funding, this website will not be updated. As a result, the information on this website may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the website may not be processed and HRSA may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.

HRSA activities/events are cancelled or postponed unless you receive specific information to the contrary. Updates regarding government operating status and resumption of normal operations can be found at

Another place we can thank those who are giddy and delighted for this Government Shutdown. Organs are in short supply to begin with........this Government Shutdown isn't helping out. But Republicans would have you think otherwise, after all who needs a Government according to them.

Kathleen R (138)
Friday October 4, 2013, 1:52 pm

pam w (139)
Friday October 4, 2013, 2:01 pm
Imagine it? Imagine how wonderful it could be?

And then imagine how many ANTI-SCIENCE fundamentalists stand in the way of more developments like these.....

Lois Jordan (63)
Friday October 4, 2013, 2:33 pm
Noted. Quite amazing info. Thank you, Kit.

Birgit W (160)
Friday October 4, 2013, 2:39 pm
Interesting, thanks Kit.

Rose Becke (141)
Friday October 4, 2013, 3:42 pm
How wonderful this would be for all

Michael M (5)
Friday October 4, 2013, 6:10 pm
Well what the hell am I supposed to do with my illegal clone that I had planned on for body parts?

On a more serious note: Does this mean I can get new lungs and I do NOT need to stop smoking?

Nimue Michelle Pendragon Gaze (339)
Friday October 4, 2013, 6:17 pm
Michael M, very amusing "The Island" reference. Noted, thank you, Kit.

Laurie H (817)
Friday October 4, 2013, 8:03 pm
Thanks Kit So Much---SORRY---I just can't resist this----maybe the Republicans, can be first on line for a heart!!!!LOL~~~~

Sheila D (194)
Friday October 4, 2013, 9:05 pm
What wonderful things science can do, when not inventing bigger and badder weapons to kill more at a time. Wonder if they've thought of 3-D limbs. Wouldn't that be something, especially withso manyl of our people coming home from these wars missing body parts.

Sherri G (128)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 1:11 am
TY Kit. Wouldn't it be wonderful. Not likely in my lifetime but possibly in my grandchildren's lives. Noted.

Jonathan Harper (0)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 4:01 am

Patricia H. (440)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 4:36 am

. (0)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 7:04 am
That's good news. Thanks for sharing, Kit.

Lloyd H (46)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 7:49 am
Unfortunately the Law of Unintended Consequences also makes 3-D printing perfect for the manufacture of metal free virtually undetectable GUNS that can shoot undetectable bullets. The better the printers become and the better the printing polymers become the better the Guns will become.

Aurea Aurea Walker (226)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 7:54 am
Dandelion, as always thank you for your incisive, intelligent and beautifully worded posts. I have been an organ donor since its inception. However I do not see much advertising about organ donation and it needs to be more heavily promoted. About five years ago a young American girl was shot to death in Calabria, Italy and herb parents did an incredible act of love, they donated her organs to 4 young Italian children. The Italian press covered this incredible generosity by the childs parents and organ donations have increased by 25% in Italy since then. Until this scientific endeavor is a reality, we must put a face on the urgent need for organ donations.

A. Cailia W (39)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 7:54 am
Noted. Thanks for sharing.

Kit B (276)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 8:15 am

Fortunately, those guns only able to shot one bullet and are illegal. A few weeks ago I posted an article about a young boy that has used 3-D printing for making prosthetics. All of these wonderful new inventions aside, I think we still need to try to be as healthy as possible for the years we have.

Lloyd H (46)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 9:01 am
Kit, "so far they can only fire one bullet" and I am not betting on how long that lasts. Second "Undetectable Guns" are not illegal for the US military and the CIA. Now add to that the fact that on December 9, 2013 the "Undetectable Gun Act" expires. Personally I don not think the NRA will allow it to be extended after all they have opposed banning terrorists from gun ownership, the new NRA law/Constitutional Amendment in Louisiana forbids felons from being bared from owning guns.
Oh, and by the way when did it become impossible to kill some one with a SINGLE Bullet.

Kit B (276)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 9:59 am

@Lloyd - For now any way I see nothing profitable in supporting a home made gun for the NRA. They may not come out in support of making them illegal. The NRA is all selling guns that is their sole reason for existence . I do realize that many states have completely stupid laws -v- guns, laws that fly in the face of public safety.
I'm not saying that one bullet can not kill, only that a gun that fires only one bullet at time is just a bit less dangerous. Though as we know, technology is moving very fast and too soon those guns may be able to fire multiple rounds.

Theodore Shayne (56)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 1:15 pm
Noted. Far better than a weapon.

Thomas B (1)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 2:56 pm
That means they could also print tiny flying monkeys in my but!

Sheryl G (363)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 5:20 pm
Err....guess so, not sure why you'd want that.

DaleLovesOttawa O (198)
Saturday October 5, 2013, 8:47 pm
Flying monkeys...could suit some conservative politicians.

Fascinating reading and article.

Past Member (0)
Sunday October 6, 2013, 4:12 am
I new medical marijuana was a bad idea.

Sheryl G (363)
Sunday October 6, 2013, 5:24 am
???? Wrong topic unless I missed something.

S S (0)
Sunday October 6, 2013, 7:23 am
Thank you.

Kathleen R (192)
Sunday October 6, 2013, 10:13 am
Thanks Kit. This is amazing news. Making 3D organs is so much better than making 3D guns. I still don't understand the whole process but it seems fantastic.

Barbara K (60)
Sunday October 6, 2013, 4:59 pm
Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to heal someone like this? To be able to make new body parts for those waiting for new livers or kidneys or even hearts. Wow. Thanks, my friend.

Karen Chestney (112)
Monday October 7, 2013, 7:05 pm
WOW !!!! 3D printers-----WOW----Bioprinting !!! -----WOW !!!! Man, it seems, can accomplish what he can imagine !!!!.
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