3D printers are becoming more and more popular and their functionality is growing everyday. These devices are able to translate an object that is created in specific software to produce an actual three-dimensional replica using plastic, metal, ceramic, glass or other materials. They have wide-spread use, serving a multitude of industries for objects such as toys, jewelry and hard medical devices, but could 3D-printed organs actually be possible?
The healthcare industry has used 3D printers over the past few years to create hard implants such as hearing aids, dental implants and prosthetic hands, but it wasn’t until recently that creating soft tissues such as organs via a 3D printer has come closer to a possibility. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a 3D printing method that layers the soft materials inside of a special type of gel so that it can support its own weight. The gel, which is composed of a collagen slurry that is semisolid at room temperature and then melts at 99 degrees, acts as a support bath material so that the 3D-created tissue won’t collapse under its own weight.
This new technology is called FRESH, which stands for Freedom Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels. Scientists start with a container of support gel and then a needle injects another gel into that gel to reiterate the computer-aided design. When the printing is complete, the support gel is melted away. Organs and tissues that have been tested so far include a miniature human brain, a scaled-up heart of a baby chicken, a branching pattern of arteries, and femurs. Scientists are now working on ways to inject living cells into the organs so the organs will function in the body, and while we are still years out, it’s becoming more and more possible everyday.
Instead of printing things made out of materials like plastic and metal, scientists are now able to 3D print materials that the body uses to build itself, like collagen and fibrin, structural proteins found in the human body, and alginate, a seaweed-derived substance, which is often used in food and medicine as a thickening agent. In the future, these 3D-printed structures will be able to support real heart cells (and cells of other organs) to grow heart muscle.
3D printed organs presents a tremendous amount of possibility for the healthcare industry. For one, it will help increase the amount of organ transplants that can be done. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, “22 people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t take place because of the shortage of donated organs.” Being able to create organs will save an incredible amount of lives. Another use for printed organs is for drug or vaccine testing, and what is closest to being possible is printing patches of tissue that can be used to repair damaged organs.