Picture the scene: a well-lit operating room; the patient is anesthetized and prepped for surgery, his chest open awaiting a new heart. The surgeon stands ready as the nurse hands him a brand new 3D-printed heart, made of the patient’s own DNA to avoid rejection and ensure a perfect genetic match. Sound like science fiction? This is quickly becoming our not-so-distant future.
3D-printing is all the rage these days; offering the ability to create complex objects such as toys, trophies, plastic or metal parts and even food, using computer-generated models and a 3D-printer. The buzz in the medical technology community however is how close are we to using this regularly for live human organs. The mechanics of it are fairly simple; the challenge of printing live organs is the viability of the tissue and keeping it healthy and alive during the process.
Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre, devised an interesting solution by printing 3D tissue samples onto a “sponge” made of plastic combined with organic matter and nutrients to keep the cells healthy and alive. Once implanted, this inorganic matter breaks down and is replaced by cells that grow into the gaps. They call this process “biodegradable scaffolding.”
Medical researchers have been able to grow live tissue in a lab for many years, now with the advent of 3D-printing, they will be able to easily solve the issue of duplicating the complex cell structure of a specific patient with a perfect DNA match and grow larger, more substantial organs.
According to BBC News, there has already been some limited success in creating 3D-printed body parts that have been implanted into animals, without tissue rejection. This technology will soon be used in limited human testing.
In October of 2016, Harvard University researchers made significant headway by developing the first 3D-printed heart-on-a-chip with built in sensors. This revolutionary breakthrough will allow medical researchers to simulate disease conditions or a patient’s specific body makeup and use this technology to devise solutions based on the data collected by the sensors.
It is exciting to see how quickly this technology is progressing. It will not be very long before the scene set above will be a daily reality and this amazing process will revolutionize modern medicine and possibly even prolong life for decades.