The implications of 3D printing are still relatively unexplored. One of these is the idea of using the technology to print biomaterials such as human tissues. Despite recent breakthroughs in the past few years, 3D printed organs that are ready for human transplant are still science-fiction.
However, scientists from Brazil are working to bring artificially fabricated organs closer to the realm of reality. The team recently announced that it has successfully 3D printed “mini livers” that perform all the functions of a normal human liver. This includes everything from synthesizing proteins to storing vitamins and creating bile for digestion.
Artificial Liver Breakthrough
Typically when researchers experiment with the 3D printing of biomaterials, they do so in single-cell layers. The Brazilian team tried a different approach this time and it made a big difference. Rather than printing one cell at a time, researchers clumped cells together prior to printing.
The cell clumps were mixed with a bioink that resembles hydrogel and then 3D printed onto a lattice. So far, the results are promising. The new printing method produced miniature organs that lasted far longer than those created during previous attempts.
Details surrounding the new technique are included in the team’s research paper. It is published in the journal Biofabrication.
One of the authors, Ernesto Goulart, says, “At this stage, they [the mini livers] aren’t tissue yet because they’re dispersed, but as shown by our study, they already have the capacity to clear the blood of toxins and produce and secrete albumin [a protein produced only by the liver].”
He goes on to say that, although the team only produced the artificial livers on a small scale, their process could easily be scaled up. Considering that scientists hope to use 3D printed organs for human transplant one day this is an important factor.
Paving the Way for Artificial Organ Transplant
Currently, researchers haven’t yet made a breakthrough that puts 3D printed organ transplantation on the radar in the near future. However, by the end of the next decade, it is certainly a possibility.
Both in the United States and around the world there is a staggering shortage of donor organs. Compatibility issues and transplant rejection decrease that number even more as waitlists continue to grow. Patients who need a liver transplant might face a waiting period of around 150 days. For some, that simply isn’t enough time. Meanwhile, about half of those on liver transplant lists will never receive the organ they need.
Fortunately, researchers are eagerly pursuing the field of 3D printed organs. Another author on the Brazilian study, Mayana Zatz, says, “More stages have yet to be achieved until we obtain a complete organ, but we’re on the right track to highly promising results.”
Eliminating the need for human donors will drastically change how the world views organ transplantation. Rather than anxiously waiting for the perfect donor, those in need of a new liver (or another organ) can have one printed out of their own cells. This also eliminates the risk of rejection.
For now, breakthroughs like this one remain promising. However, much more work needs to be done if patients are to receive 3D printed organs anytime soon.