WHEN WILL 3D BIOPRINTED ORGANS BECOME COMMONLY ACCESSIBLE?
First developed in the 1980s, the 3d printing technology has been harnessed as the ability to produce a wide range of objects, ranging from architectural scale models to toys and stationery. Ever since, scientists believe that the future of 3d printing lies not in simple plastic designs and models, but rather in an extremely broad range of studies, sparking the hope for the harnessing of its pioneer abilities in the field of biology.
The third leading cause of death worldwide is chronic lung disease (Lund University, 2021), often leaving patients with no other option but lung transplant. This reflects numerous chronic diseases that are currently cureless, yet with their prominence worldwide leave a massive shortage of available organs. This is a field in which scientists are exploring the implementation of the 3d printing technology to solve the issue of organs shortage as well as organ rejection.
A 3d bioprinter would harness the direct method already used by classical printers to lay down and build up a chosen design. Organs could be printed from a gel like substance, called bioink, based off a patient’s induced pluripotent stem cells, ensuring that the organ would be built from cells recognised by the immune system of the patient, eliminating the risk of infection or rejection.
As of today, scientists have not been able to print a full human organ, yet gradually are descending towards this ability. The first microfluid models of organ tissue referred to as organ chips have been artificially created. These have been used by researchers to study the effect of new drugs on human tissue instead of animals, which has been a great step towards an animal cruelty free future. Furthermore, Israelian researchers have created a rabbit size heart from human cells (Freeman, 2019). The heart was built up using “bioink” that contains biopolymer gel and induced step cells transformed from human fat cells. These have been revolutionary achievements that bring us a step closer to printing full size human organs.
So, this leaves us with the question: when? When will we be able to see the technology of 3d printers implemented in the medical field to create a safer and more efficient source of organs?
Unfortunately, there are numerous factors acting against the implementation of this technology, including the disadvantages of the very material that would be used to build it. The “bioink” gel like substance consists of not only induced stem cells building up a porous structure, but also of an algae like material derived from seaweed (Lund University, 2021) or biopolymer gel. This means that the substance is extremely unstable and prone to damage during the process of printing. Another challenge of this substance is the development of induced stem cells, which must be mature and fit for building a particular organ. Induced stem cells take numerous weeks to develop and are also extremely costly. This means that even if 3d bioprinted organs would be developed, the current cost of their production would make them too expensive to be commonly accessible.
However, despite the obstacles that bioprinting faces on its path of development, we cannot neglect how powerful the 3d bioprinter is as a tool and its life-saving potential. We still must wait patiently for the successful implementation of this technology to the medical field, yet because of recent events such as the heart built from human stem cells by Israelian researchers, this wait might not be as long as previously predicted. Yet, if so, we still must wait for these organs to become commonly accessible which predictably will not occur as rapidly.