The severe shortage of donor organs that leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths a year could be solved in the near future due to new bioengineering breakthroughs in 3D printing technology. In the UK alone, the NHS says an average of 3 people a day die for want of donor organs. Lungs and livers are among the organs where shortages are most pronounced, as well as transplants most difficult to execute. New ‘bio-printing’ techniques that combine living cells with synthetic materials could soon solve the problem.
Producing the living cells needed to create organs in a laboratory is already possible. The bottleneck has been keeping them alive and functioning in unison as an organ. Miniscule and complex microvascular networks provide the nutrients and remove the waste by-products needed for organs to stay alive and function. Until now successfully recreating this ‘biological plumbing’ has escaped researchers. Lungs are especially complex, consisting of around 600 million microscopic air sacs call alveoli. These facilitate the exchange of gases in and out of our blood.
New 3D printing techniques are now getting close to producing these systems. Researchers have successfully created clusters of alveoli, meaning whole lungs could soon be possible. And a study published recently in the Science journal documented how a prototype 3D-printed liver transplanted into a mouse resulted in the creature’s tissue ‘reaching out’ to it to supply blood.
Another problem that organ transplants involve is the fact that patients subsequently have to take immunosuppressants for life to prevent the rejection by the body. It is believed that bioprinting replacement organs whose synthetic ‘scaffolding’ is coated with a patient’s cells will overcome the body’s rejection of the organs.
Quoted in The Times newspaper, Dr Jordan Miller of Rice University of Houston, Texas stated that believes that within twenty years 3D-printed organ replacements will have become ‘a major component of medicine’. The developments give potential hope to future sufferers of currently untreatable conditions such as lung cancer. Israeli researchers have also recently managed to bio-print the world’s first living human heart.