Imagine being able to go to a hospital and get spare parts for your body, as you would go to a spares shop to buy parts for your car.
Do you need a new nose, ear, kidney or heart? Or maybe you need a patch of skin to cover up a blemish? No problem – they will be able to supply and install.
Thanks to the field of biomedical technology, huge strides are being made in the world of medicine, but few are as amazing as the field of bioprinting.
Bioprinting is a field where body parts of living things are printed in a lab. This is possible thanks to 3D-printing technology, which enables us to convert computer models into real, physical objects.
In 3D printing, a three-dimensional computer model is developed of the object we want to print. This model is then sent to a printer, just as you would send a document to print on paper. The difference with 3D printers is that, instead of using ink to print two-dimensional pictures, they use materials like plastic polymers, epoxy or metals to print three-dimensional objects. These materials are added, layer by layer by a special nozzle – very much like a baker using a nozzle will add layers of icing to a cake – until the modelled object is complete.
Bioprinting is almost identical to 3D printing, but with a key difference: instead of using plastic polymers and metals to 3D print objects, they use actual living human cells to print human organs. Scientists at institutes like the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have developed the technology that allows them to print human parts, and are now working to improve that tech.
To create a body part for a patient, the scientists will do a scan of the patient’s existing body part and create a 3D model of it on a computer screen. The part will be carefully designed so it is an exact replica of the original, otherwise it might not fit or in the case of an external organ like an ear, it might look different from its pair, leaving the patient with two ears that are different in size.
Once the design is completed, the next stage is to extract cells from the patient’s body. These cells will then be replicated in a lab in sufficient quantities to produce enough raw material for the organ. This raw material of human cells is then fed into the printer, which uses it to print the organ which will be transplanted into the patient.
Current organ transplant methods are extremely challenging. Even though organ transplanting has come a long way since Dr Christiaan Barnard’s first heart transplant in 1967, there are still a number of challenges. For one thing, it is very difficult to find suitable donors. If a donor is found, doctors need to check if there is a match between the donor and the recipient, based on blood type and other factors. Only if there is a perfect match, can doctors attempt a transplant. But there is still no guarantee that the transplant will be successful.
Once the transplant is complete, there is a strong chance that the recipient’s body will reject the organ, even though it was from a matching donor. In fact, about 50% of transplanted organs are rejected within 10 to 12 years. That is an extremely high rate.
The great thing about 3D printed organs is that, first, there is no need to search for a donor since the organs can be printed on demand within hours. Second, since 3D printed organs are made from the patient’s own cells, there is little to no chance of them being rejected by the patient’s body.
Although the current technology only allows us to 3D print certain organs like ears, in the near future we will be able to 3D print pretty much any organ, with the possible exception of the brain. As bioprinting technology advances and it becomes cheaper to produce organs, it will undoubtedly transform the medical industry. Imagine being able to get a brand-new replacement for just about any part of your body?
Perhaps a time will come when bioprinters will become so cheap and accessible that any hospital will be able to afford them. Organs will be printed on demand and within hours, completely cutting out the lengthy times patients have to wait for matching organs, which often puts their lives at risk. Then, instead of trying to heal existing body parts that were damaged through accidents or infections, perhaps doctors might just opt to replace them altogether.
Many scientists are already thinking beyond just patients on Earth; they see bioprinting as one of the key factors that will make colonising other planets possible. A colony living on Mars, for example, will not have access to hospitals and organ donors, so bioprinting will be ideal.
When Dr Joseph Murray performed the first successful organ transplant (of a kidney), in Boston, US, in 1954, I doubt he could have imagined where technology would take his field.