3D Printing Revolutionizing Medtech
Traditional organ transplantation
According to official estimates, there are more than half a million individuals currently awaiting vital organ transplants worldwide. A new name is added to the long waiting list every 10 minutes, and some 20 people are expected to die each day from the lack of available organs.
Because of low donor organ availability, as well as surgeons’ busy schedules, until recently the need for an organ transplant often ended up being a death sentence for many, frequently associated with long waiting times, transplant rejections and detrimental immune system responses.
With the advances in medtech that we have witnessed in the past few years, producing three-dimensional hearts, kidneys, lungs, and livers on demand no longer seems like a part of a far-fetched futuristic film plot. Read on to find out why.
Printed organ transplants coming soon to a clinic near you
What if we could use the omni-potent 3D printers to produce tissue that can be used to bio-fabricate humanoid organs from scratch? A few years ago, this would have sounded very unrealistic, however, with the advances in stem cell research and holographic printing technology, we are a few short years away from benefiting from this specific type of progress.
So, what would these 3D-printed organs be made from? The tissue that’s needed to produce organs can be harvested from patients themselves through skin, blood, stem cell or bone marrow – this material can then be used to grow completely customized, patient-specific organs.
The ability to make organs is based not just on the ability to grow tissue out of patient cells, but largely on a new technology for manufacturing capillaries – the blood vessels in our bodies that allow nutrients and oxygen to pass through. Without this vital piece of a functioning organ, it would be virtually impossible to 3D-print one.
Some of the pioneers in 3D-organ printing can now create three-dimensional layers by using holographic printing technology in seconds. Speed is also crucial in this process to ensure cells don’t die prematurely so that the organic tissue remains viable until its fabrication is complete.
Life-saving potential and successes
The benefits of being able to create artificial organs that can be implanted into humans are obvious, and so is their life-saving potential.
In addition to not requiring the availability of human donors with the right blood type and organs, another major advantage of using stem-cell derived tissue is the fact that it is not perceived by the body as a foreign object. Thus, patients implanted with 3D tissue would not require the immunosuppression treatments that typical organ transplant receivers would need, leading to fewer complications associated with immune reactions and foreign organ rejection.
In some recent revolutionary medical news, an HIV-positive patient who received a bone marrow transplant to treat cancer was declared HIV-negative post-transplant, thus marking one of the first cases of the virus being completely eradicated from the human body and the AIDS disease – altogether averted.
Similarly, by treating a motionless quadriplegic patient with stem cells injected in his spine, he was able to regain much movement in his upper body, raising hope for reversing the effects of paralyzing spinal cord injuries and improving the lives of thousands.
3D printed organ challenges and the road ahead
Some of the organ bio-fabrication challenges cited by pioneering industry players include increasing the size of the tissue that can be grown – at this time, only very small organoids can be produced without the tissue perishing. In some cases, growing tissue outside the body can be more productive to transplanting 3D-printed organs, as is the case with patients who have severely deteriorated liver tissue, for example. There are also scenarios, in which both printed organs and grown tissue can be incorporated to maximize a patient’s chances.
Despite the remarkable technological advances in regenerative medicine, organ manufacturing is by no means a widely available or commercially viable option at this point. Nevertheless, by optimistic estimates, we can expect 3D-printed organs to become easier, faster and more economically feasible to produce in the next five years. We are moving towards a time when this remarkable technology will be an alternative for patients with failing organs, whose only chance might be receiving a timely organ transplant.