If technological progress ever needed to justify itself then it would find no better evidence than its application in medical sciences to make its case. Advancement in biological sciences has led to better understanding of diseases and life processes which in turn helps in finding a cure of our ailments. One recent innovation has been the use of 3D printing techniques in the field of medicine. 3D printing technology is said to be disruptive; one reason behind that is its successful application across various fields. 3D printing has also revolutionized certain areas of medical science, where it is now being used to create tissues and cartilage. Scientists are also working on 3D printing human organs. So 3D printing has opened up exciting new avenues in regenerative medicines, offering hope to people suffering from organ failure. While 3D printing human organs and their clinical acceptance might take more time, doctors and biomedical engineers, meanwhile, are finding ways of using 3D printing technology to save lives.
Consider the case of Andrew Sandness who lost most of his face, in the winter of 2006, when he shot himself in the face in an attempt to end his life. The incident left him without a nose and a jaw. His mouth was shattered with just two teeth remaining intact.
The future looked bleak for Andrew as he did not believe he could ever lead a normal life again. His regret could not undo what he did but that is when technology intervened and offered him a new ray of hope. His doctors at the Mayo clinic, where he was being treated, introduced him to a rare procedure – a face transplant. Simply put, they proposed to use the face of another man to give Andrew a new one. But the procedure was very complicated and required tremendous planning.
This is where the doctors made use of, and were greatly benefited by 3D printing technology. They were able to 3D print precise and detailed models of Andrew’s and the donor’s faces which allowed them to rehearse the operation in advance. According to the doctors, modeling engineers provided them with cutting guides which gave them the exact location and the angle of cut so that when they took the donor’s face and put it on the recipient, it fit perfectly. Without the technology, perhaps, they would never have been able to undertake the challenge of giving back someone a face!
After the surgery Andrew had the nose, cheeks, mouth, chin, jaw, lips and even the teeth of his donor. He was given a new face, and a new life! But Andrew had to wait for 10 years to find the right donor, a scenario which could change in the future with 3D printed organ transplant. Moreover, there remain issues that Andrew will have to contend with like organ rejection. He will continue to take medication which prevents his body from rejecting the new face – since it belonged to someone else. Organ rejection remains one of the prime concerns with any organ transplant surgery. But 3D printing, more specifically bioprinting, seeks to put an end to that as well.
What is Bioprinting?
Basically bioprinting is the general term used to refer to the creation of tissues (and someday possibly organs) using 3D printing techniques. It is made possible because cells, which are the fundamental units of life, fuse together to form tissues which in turn join together to form an organ. Even when our body stops growing, our cells do not lose the ability to regenerate. And the process of regeneration continuously takes place inside our body. Thus it is this ability of cells to multiply and produce tissue that is being utilized in bioprinting.
Much like the common 3D printer that uses a digital model to create objects printing them layer by layer, a bioprinter uses bioink (which is a material that is capable of supporting cell growth and fusion) to print structures that are then seeded with cells. The seeding process might also be done using a 3D printer, putting the cells in precise position layer upon layer.
Currently scientists have been able to print simple tissues such as blood vessels or cartilage and even the bladder. But 3D printing of complex organs such as the liver and the heart and using them to replace human organs is still some time away.
Right now the technology is being used by companies such as Organovo to print liver tissue used for toxicity testing purposes. But they are optimistic about being able to 3D print a liver within the next decade. Other 3D printing organ companies are working on different approaches in 3D printing human organs. One such company is 3D bioprinting solutions, a Russian company that is working on printing multiple human organs using patient’s stem cells. Then there is Cellink that seeks to make its fortunes from selling bioink. Although 3D printed organ transplant is a formidable endeavor, these companies and others like as them recognize the potential of bioprinting to be a game changer in this industry.
3D bio-printing an organ using the cells of the patient will remove the possibility of organ rejection. Sometimes the body rejects the organ that has been transplanted in which case the patient has to find a new one to survive. The immune system attacks the new organ and people have to take immunosuppressant to prevent rejection. This is where 3D printed organs using the patient’s own cells will make the surgery completely successful. Since they are formed from cells taken from the person’s own body and most likely from the affected organ itself, the body has no adverse immune response and is able to recognize it as its own. So many people lose their lives because of organ failure. A 3D printed organ transplant will help save them!
Benefits of bioprinting
3D printing human organs allow doctors to improve medical procedures. One benefit of bioprinting is that it can provide cure tailored to the needs of individual patients. For example, recently doctors used 3D Printing technology to create a partial skull implant for a woman undergoing brain surgery. The doctors took scans of the woman’s skull and printed an implant that was shaped precisely to fit her skull. It not only meant an improvement in the cosmetic aspect of the surgery but also ensured better brain function in the patient. 3D bioprinting organs thus gives doctors the ability to be more precise and confident in complicated procedures.
Once this vision becomes reality and we are able to create organs using 3D printing we will be able to solve a lot of the problems associated with organ transplantation. Today there are many people who are in need of an organ transplant but only a fraction of them are fortunate enough to find a match. The waiting list is huge and one might need to wait a long time before one finds a donor. Being able to 3D print human organs will help us in eliminating this waiting list and eventually it might be possible to address the need of each patient.