The 3-D printer has now been a topic in the news for the past decade. Having grown from a process, the reality is that it is now over a two billion dollar industry. Scientists can now print such things as toys, parts, and watches. The 3-D printer is going up in space to be operated by robots to help humans colonize other worlds and the latest regarding this technology is going to allow these scientists to apply 3-D printing to the field of medicine.
The challenge which the scientists are finding is that it is much easier to print with plastic or chocolate, but living cells have given them a real challenge. Bioengineers all over the world have started the process of printing such parts as joints, bones, ears, heart valves and even skin grafts.
At this moment a lot of this work is still in progress. At Organovo, to print liver tissue, all that is necessary is to click the “run” button with a mouse. The liver when printed is not fully functional yet, but it is a tangible step in the right direction.
The printing of the organs is not the hardest part of this process; once the organ is printed, the cells have requirements. The scientists are now working on what it will take to make the printed tissue work like real tissue. To simplify a little more, once the organ is printed, such as a heart, the heart tissue is in the right place, but researchers still face the challenge of figuring out how to get the cells and tissues to start. In other words, they to discover where or what is the “start button?”
Gabor Forgac, the co-founder of Organovo and a biological physicist at the University of Missouri believes that if the organ is printed using only living human tissue, that the organ will finish itself. He believes that the magic will happen after the printing has taken place. With printing of objects such as toys, the toy is complete once it is printed, however, when an organ is printed using only living human tissue, it is not finished at all.
The researchers in Singapore are working on a process that will organize the cells in hydrogel fibers. Doing this will provide a template for making complex structures such as fat tissue or organ replacements. This approach is believed to make it possible to create pre-formed blood vessels which will be necessary to promote the vessels’ integrating with the other tissues of the host of an organ replacement.
The organ has to integrate with the patient’s circulatory system to be effective. It has to have oxygen and essential nutrients. The future of the medical field is definitely changing and the 3-D printer is playing a great part in this. Maybe printing a functional heart or lung at this moment may not be possible, but pay attention because it is coming around the corner fast. Very soon, the 3-D printing of organs to be transplanted into a human body will become a reality.
By: Linda Lafferty