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The Organ Trail

New advances in bioengineering will one day give us 3D-printed livers, kidneys and hearts— with impacts on pharmaceuticals, surgery and more


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The team at Wake Forest is also working on printing skin cells directly onto burn victims with severe injuries who otherwise might need skin grafts culled from their back or buttocks. Kyle Binder, a lab scientist at Wake Forest's Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, explains in a video from Lab TV that the process involves "taking a normal desktop ink-jet printer, and you load the cartridge with cells instead of ink, and just using the normal method . . . you can print out human tissue instead of ink."

LIVER GIVER A system akin to this mock scenario of a 3D bioprinting setup could soon be in hospitals around the country.
  • LIVER GIVER A system akin to this mock scenario of a 3D bioprinting setup could soon be in hospitals around the country.

The video shows a stunningly lo-fi version of a bioprinter, literally a home desktop printer with the cover removed, its guts modified to save lives instead of to print tax forms. Burns can account for 10 to 30 percent of all casualties on a battlefield, hence the Army's interest in the technology, but it will also be able useful for treating burn victims on-site, like firefighters or other emergency personnel.

How it works is pretty simple: a camera scans the wound, making a 3D map with lasers, and a computer sorts out where and what to print onto the skin. The wound is filled, and—presto—the cells grow into new skin. Though this already sounds futuristic, the video of this demonstration is three years old. Since then, the Wake Forest team has updated the machine and has had success working on mice, closing a wound in two weeks that normally takes five weeks to heal. Most human victims of burns that severe will die within two weeks due to infection.


Sculptor and NYU art professor Robert Michael Smith is also involved in advancing bioprinting technology, but not for obvious reasons. "I want to be the first sculptor with a sculpture on Mars, except that it will be a created living form," says the artist, who counts Montgomery High School and Santa Rosa Junior College among his alma maters. Smith, whose work was featured at Healdsburg's Hammerfriar Gallery earlier this year, has already designed and printed 3D sculptures for this purpose, even integrating living cells using a bioprinter like the one at Wake Forest. His hope is to use the technology with his own DNA to perform tests on living, human cells during space missions to Mars. This would, in a way, make him the first human being to travel to Mars.

Smith reached out to Dr. Atala, who was receptive to the idea. "When you are exploring new venues in science, you always have to break through dogma," says Atala in a discussion with Smith on YouTube. Atala says the idea is possible with current technology, though it would be an "expensive proposition."

Smith says his vision includes a version of Wake Forest's bioprinter for further experiments on the Red Planet. Like testing new treatments in drug research, Smith sees the possibility of evaluating the effects of intense, prolonged space travel on a cellular level using living tissue systems created with a bioprinter. "Why should any sentient creature be sacrificed when we can be creating physical simulators?" he asks, citing reports of people already signed up for a one-way "suicide mission" to study the planet's potential for colonization. "Human beings are going to do whatever human beings are going to do," says Smith. "Whether I'm involved or not, this is going to move forward."


Due to the United States' regulatory system and insurance billing codes, Collins says TeVido's breast-tissue research is likely to be implemented in the cosmetic market before the medical industry is able to take full advantage of it. Collins estimates that cosmetic procedures using this technology could be taking place within 10 years, while the FDA is looking at clinical trials and making up its mind on using the technology in medical applications. "Medical technology is getting a lot more complex very quickly, and we're kind of overloading the system," Collins says.

Waiting for the tortoise-like government-approval process to finalize means that, in the meantime, there's no money coming in. One way to combat this is to license the technology for use in other countries. "That is not ideal," says Collins, "but it's the way many companies work in this space right now."

Just a few months ago, Hangzhou Dianzi University in China announced it had made a 3D tissue printer that successfully printed functional miniature liver samples and ear cartilage. An orthopedic surgeon in Southern California is working on a technique involving printing cartilage from a patient's own cells that might eventually replace dangerous and limiting spinal-fusion surgery. And perhaps most promising, a company in New England recently engineered a small kidney that produced a urine-like substance when implanted in a steer. The technology is here. It's just in the "making sure it's safe" phase.

"Making sure it's safe" is a primary concern, even in the extreme, fictional future. In the Star Trek episode, Lt. Worf's surgery was successful, but he technically died on the operating table; it was only his redundant Klingon anatomy, with backup systems of vital organs, that saved his life.

Once the technology is shown to be safe, which is on track to happen in our lifetime, new organs will appear out of thin air more often than from another human. The "organ donor" section on a drivers' license application could become a whimsical nod to the past. The waiting list for transplants could be eliminated.

In the world of 3D bioprinting, the future may be closer than you think.


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