Organ printing has been with us for 15 years now. It is a reasonably novel technology, and also a very confusing one (perhaps even bizarre). Indeed, how does one print an organ? And why is it so hard for us to grasp the technology behind it? If you are interested in topics similar to this (on business, technology, health, etc.), visit Idkmen – For men, who want to know.
After having researched the topic extensively, I came to this conclusion: there are three pivotal questions concerning organ printing:
- How is it possible (what is the technology behind it)?
- What is it used for (what are the implications of this technology)?
- Where is it going to go (what is the future of organ printing)?
Let’s examine these questions, shall we?
On 3D Printing
To understand 3D bioprinting, one must realize its preceding technology, the 3D printing. The reason why a lot of people have trouble with understanding this technology is that, when they think of printing, they immediately imagine standard printers they have in their homes or offices, which is perfectly understandable.
3D printing is a computer controlled technology in which the matter is combined and formed in a 3D form. One gentleman on Quora said that 3D printing is an attempt to reproduce physical objects artificially, building it layer by layer. It goes like this:
- You give the printer an image (3D representation) of a specific object to see if it printable
- If printable, the software then slices the file and forwards it to the printer
- Then, you give the printer the filament (in case of bioprinting, bioink) through the printer head
- Printer melts the filament and forwards it to its “construction site,” its building platform
- Printer head then starts forming the melted filament, working from bottom up (layer by layer)
Okay, the concept is pretty straightforward, right? You give the software a 3D image of a teacup; you feed it with filament, it builds the bottom layer, lowers the platform, creates another layer, and repeats the process until the object is formed. But what about organ printing? Printing inanimate objects (such as teacup) differs from printing the living thing (such as liver).
Let’s say that you want to print a new liver: how would you do it, assuming you have the technology to make it possible? Here’s how:
The first thing you need to do is a biopsy of the specific organ, in this case, liver. Then, you use CT (tomographic technology), which gives you a better insight of the liver, precisely, a layer by layer insight. Imagine sandwich: to reproduce it you have to know what it consists of (bottom slice of bread, maybe ham, maybe cheese, maybe sliced tomatoes, and then a top slice of bread).
Now that the software knows what the liver is, you isolate some of the cells (from the biopsy) and multiply them. Once you have enough cells, you mix them with a material that consists of oxygen and nutrients (hey, cells are alive and hungry)!
Now, you place this liquified mixture (which consists of multiplied cells, Bioinks, etc.) in the printer and print the organ. The method is similar to 3D printing, consisting of the layer by layer process. But here’s the catch: to produce liver, cells need to be placed onto a biocompatible platform to stay alive.
One bioprinted, an organ needs to be placed in an incubator, so that it could grow and develop fully. The big problem with printing organs is their complexity. Organs consist of various cell types, blood vessels, tubes, and so forth. Moreover, they consist of billions and billions of cells, and they are all hungry!
In essence, the scientists now know how to reproduce cells, how to produce pre-tissue and help it mature into tissue. They even know how to print a living organ; keeping it alive, that’s the biggest issue.
By now you have a mechanically functional organ, but it isn’t alive (it is alive, but can’t survive without artificial help). In this process, you have to provide the liver with various mechanical and biochemical stimulants, that is, you need to make it intelligent.
You have to instruct the cells on how it should reproduce, moreover, how it should keep being liver. If left unchecked and without instructions, the cells will lose sight and module themselves into something else: this is by far the most complicated step in the process of bioprinting.
Before the transplant, the liver needs to be intelligent, in the sense that it maintains itself, keeps its bioprinted form, maintains growth, maintains vascularization and so forth.
We have yet to figure out how our bodies work. Currently, 3D printed organs are used for research and development of new, more advanced drugs. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how to produce a transplant-ready 3D printed organ. The biggest problem is the emulation of the vascularization, a process which feeds the organ and helps it excrete waste.
Moreover, the body also has to accept the organ, and the organ needs to “blend-in” with the body and become a part of a much more complex system. However, our goals are much higher. Thousands of people are dying every day because they can’t receive the organ they need, and thousands die due to transplant rejection. If we manage to master the technology of bioprinting, we might be able to save the lives of those people that need new organs.
The Future Of Organ Printing
When will 3D printed organs be available for transplant? Well, that’s a million dollar question. The Economist mentions in one of their articles that the ability to transplant 3D printed organ depends on the complexity of that specific organ.
The article suggests that we will soon be able to transplant printed skin and help people with burns and ulcers. Roots Analysis, a medical consulting company, indicates that we may be able to print kidneys within the next decades. Hearts, on the other hand, are very complicated and will require more research and testing.
Noone can predict the future. Dr. Luiz Bertassoni, the leader of biomedical engineering and research at the Unversity of Sidney said that the organ 3D printing is still a couple of decades away. If interested in content similar to this, you should definitely explore Idkmen site content.