The demand for body organs to be used for transplantation is undoubtedly very high. In fact, US Department of Health and Human Services statistics show that in the U.S., there are currently 119,966 people that need an organ transplant to live. However, there only have been 11,777 organ donors as of October 2016. Another morbid fact that society faces today is that more and more evidence of organ trafficking is being exposed, with reports that some of these body organs like kidneys and livers sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the black market.
There is a need obviously for more efficient alternative methods to supplying transplant-requiring patients with the organs necessary. With the recent breakthroughs in the medical field, an alternative may just become viable in the near future.
This alternative is the emerging field called regenerative medicine. Standard transplant methods require that the organ be taken from a living or recently deceased donor, making it very hard to acquire. Regenerative medicine aims to develop and refine techniques that involve taking stem cells from the person in need of the organ. Then, these cells will be worked on in a lab environment to grow into the actual cells that will make up the organ the patient needs. These will then be used to print a body organ using a bioprinter, and once the organ is finished and has matured, will be transplanted to the patient.
The concepts and technologies that are incorporated into regenerative medicine and organ printing are not entirely new. In fact, research on the use of stem cells for creating organs has grown leaps and bounds over the past few years. Also, there have been recent success when it comes to printing body parts. Researchers at Princeton University were able to create a prototype, 3D-printed outer ear device which can be used as a replacement for people who suffer from severe trauma and damage to their outer ear.
Despite these research and testing wins in creating replacement body parts, it cannot be denied that vital internal organs are much more complicated to work on. Before this tech can be put into widespread use, it has to be proven that these synthesized organs will indeed function just like their natural counterparts and will not cause any form of harm or severe side effects to the person receiving them.
One of the key areas of this technology that needs a lot of work is on how these organs will be printed. Thankfully, there is a sliver of hope in the work of Anthony Atala and his team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. In 2015, they were able to develop an integrated tissue-organ printer, called ITOP for short, which can create human tissue of any shape. This is achieved through analysing the recipient’s anatomical data, taking accurate measurements of the problem organ and then the conversion of the data into a computer model of the organ. This will then be 3D printed with the use of biodegradable polymers along with sacrificial hydrogels. This project has already been successful in creating bones, cartilage and even skeletal muscle, making this tech truly fascinating.
If more breakthroughs are to be made in regenerative medicine, coupled with the advancement of 3D printing machines and the lowering of the prices of such tech, then patients in the next decade or two who require organ transplants may receive manufactured ones instead of waiting for a compatible organ donor. This can have a really positive impact to the health as well as lifespan of future generations.