Researchers Bring Us Closer to Functioning 3D-Printed Organs

The transplant list for getting a replacement organ is quite an extensive one, as it is not always easy to find a willing donor (with a compatible blood type and genetic makeup). For example, there are currently more than 74 thousand people on the organ donation waiting list but there were only 9,502 transplants performed in the first quarter of 2019.  

But a new alternative is emerging, which uses 3D printed organs made out of the patient’s own cells and could replace natural organ replacement. Of course, this technology is still quite preliminary, but a new study shows just how affective it could be. 

For example, scientists have recently identified a surprisingly simple solution to the exceedingly complex problem of printing accurate representations of the detailed human vascular network. This means 3D printing could start creating models of the human lung that are actually capable of circulating oxygen into the surrounding blood vessels. 

Lead study author Jordan Miller explains, “One of the biggest road blocks to generating functional tissue replacements has been our inability to print the complex vasculature that can supply nutrients to densely populated tissues.”

The team—which consists of researchers from Rice, Rowan, Duke, and Washington universities as well as the Nervous System design firm—first created a new open source technology for bioprinting. This technology is called stereolithography, and it slowly builds up a structure; in this case, using living cells cohered to hydrogel scaffolds. 

Liquid layers are added, one at a time, each layer cured with a blue light.  With each layer, too, food dyes that absorb blue light, are added to focus the solidification into the thinnest layers possible.  This, then, allows the 3D printer to create vastly complicated objects in exquisitely fine detail. 

Miller goes on to say, “Further, our organs actually contain independent vascular networks – like the airways and blood vessels of the lung or the bile ducts and blood vessels in the liver. These interpenetrating networks are physically and biochemically entangled, and the architecture itself is intimately related to tissue function. Ours is the first bioprinting technology that addresses the challenge of multivascularization in a direct and comprehensive way.”

You can find the published research in the journal Science. 

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