All Stories

3D Printing: The Answer to a Shortage of Human Organs?

Two years ago, renowned surgeon, Anthony Atala, MD, stood on a stage at a TED event and talked about a major public health crisis facing us—a shortage of organs. We are living longer, thanks to advances in medicine, but as we age our organs tend to fail more. With more aging folks requiring replacement organs, there are not enough organs to go around. Ten years earlier, Atala led the team that developed the first lab-grown organ, a bladder, to be implanted into a human. He's recognized as a pioneer in the field of regenerative medicine.

Atala demonstrated an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells (bio-ink) to output a transplantable kidney. Although the bio-ink replicated the kidney tissue perfectly, the tissues were not living.

3D printing is a process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model. The printer lays down successive thin layers of material (often molten plastic) to build up a three dimensional shape. The first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp. This technology already has many applications including architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, dental and medical industries, fashion, education, geographic information systems and food.

To print living human tissue, the printer cartridges are filled with a suspension of living cells and a "smart gel." Alternating patterns of the smart gel and living cells are printed using a standard print nozzle. The cells fuse together to form tissue. When finished, the gel is cooled and washed away, leaving behind only the live cells. The gel is heat sensitive—solidifying at 32°C and liquefying at 20°C.

Earlier this month, scientists at a Chinese university in eastern Zhejiang Province made an incredible leap forward in regenerative medicine, by producing a 3D printed kidney that they say can function as a human organ. Without the ability to create living organs, 3D printed transplants would remain impossible. That's why this new breakthrough is so important.

Unfortunately, the current batch of 3D printed kidneys only has a lifespan of four months.  That’s hardly a permanent solution for organ failure! There are still hurdles to clear before these organs will be fit for transplant.

The 3D Printer Village and club have regular weekend visits to Science World in our Innovation Lab showing off 3D printing technology to our guests. They won't be printing human kidneys, but you will find a plethora of other interesting pieces. The Doctor’s TARDIS, vases, colourful Eiffel Towers, Yoda, Christmas ornaments and lens cap holders have all appeared from their 3D printer. Pieces can be turned around anywhere from within 10 minutes to 30 hours or more. During these weekend visits, you can ask enthusiasts:

  • What is 3D printing technology?
  • Is this the start of a new industrial revolution?
  • What do I need to do my own 3D printing?
  • What can this technology do for me?

Visit the Science World webpage for more information regarding up-and-coming visits.



Image courtesy of: