Did you know that the demand for replacement organs is at an all time high? According to the Mayo Clinic, there are over 100,000 people currently waiting for an organ transplant. That’s just in the United States. And what’s worse is that every day, around 20 people who are on the waiting list to receive an organ transplant will die before receiving treatment.
Obviously, this is a big problem. Internal organs are failing and causing a lot of people to die before their time. The most deaths are attributed to kidney failure. Other organs such as the lungs, liver, pancreas, intestines, and heart can also cause catastrophic (or fatal) health problems. Sometimes there’s just no way to prevent it from happening.
So what about all the organ donors? There’s over 145 million people registered, but depending on how they die, less than 1% percent of them will be able to donate any organs. That means out of all those well-meaning citizens, 99.9% of their organs end up being unusable.
Organ donation is just not an optimized solution to the problem. For the future of healthcare to thrive, we need to think bigger. We need a long term plan to treat this issue on a larger scale. Thankfully, science is on the case.
With recent breakthroughs in a science known as “3D Bioprinting”, the need for organ donors could one day be eliminated. This is where it gets interesting.
Instead of harvesting used organs, we’ll be creating new artificial organs with advanced machines in a lab. More on that in a minute.
The traditional method to fix a failing organ has been to replace it with one that works. The first human kidney transplant was performed in 1954, and since then the science has vastly improved.
Doctors are now able to successfully transplant lungs, pancreas, intestinal organs, and even a human heart. These operations can significantly prolong a person’s life for many years to come.
While it’s an impressive medical accomplishment, the traditional practice of donation transplantation has always been problematic. Among other issues, it’s very difficult to find an available organ ready to be transplanted into a patient. This is because the traditional method for transplanting organs has always relied on human organ donors.
Imagine finding 100,000 people who are ready to donate their healthy organs. First off, they have to have opted into the organ donor program. Even then however, only 3 out of 1000 people die in a way where their organs are useable for donation.
Another factor in this is that people are living longer. This is important because the organs need to be in ship shape in order to make the journey into another living body. So if an organ donor dies of natural causes after a long healthy life, it’s very likely that their organs are too old to reuse.
This means that the chances of many life sustaining organs becoming available for transplantation (and staying fresh long enough) are becoming slimmer. And the list for people waiting to receive an organ transplant is getting longer. According to government statistics, someone gets added to the waiting list every 10 minutes. With an average of 80 organ transplants taking place each day, there’s just not enough resources.
The human body has two kidneys, but only uses one. This means that there is the possibility to save someone’s life by giving them your extra kidney. But as you might imagine there’s not many people lining up at the hospital ready to go under the knife.
Donating a kidney is a life changing event that most would only consider undertaking for a close friend or relative. Even if you do wish to go through with it, there's risks involved. Also, if you end up with kidney failure later you’ll be in a tight spot.
In an effort to lower the number of people dying everyday from organ failure, scientists and doctors have been conducting medical experiments and working together for years on a project that’s so futuristic it sounds like science fiction.
Get ready, we’re entering a new dimension.
3D printing has been around since the 1980s, at least in its modern form. There's a history of the idea going back to the 1800s, it just took a long time to figure out how to do it.
The major breakthrough was in 1986 when a man named Chuck Hull developed a technique known as stereolithography apparatus (SLA) that could print objects layer by layer using lasers. The lasers make the molecules link together and form polymers, which make the layers fuse together to make the object. It was revolutionary for the time and his work lead to creating the first commercial 3D printers. Chuck Hull, who invented 3D printing, was finally inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.
3D printing is everywhere now and in the future, you can print anything. The technology has become so advanced that a 3D printed house, a 3D printed car, and even 3D printed food like meat and vegitables are now possible. Pretty much anything you can imagine can potentially be 3D printed now.
So what about 3D printing in medicine? Don’t worry, they're working on it. In 1999, a team of doctors were able to successfully transplant an artificial bladder into a patient that was created using 3D printed technology. After that, anything seemed possible.
They’re now using the 3D printing technology for medical instruments, cranial plate implants, and external prostheses like hands and legs.
The possibilities for 3D printing are seemingly endless. It begs the question: what if you could print a human organ? Is 3D printing organs possible?
It may seem far fetched, but doctors and scientists have been working on this for many years. We’re actually a lot closer than you may think, and the future of healthcare will look a lot different as we enter the era of 3D bioprinting.
The concept of 3D bioprinting fairly simple - it’s a way to construct living biological material, in 3D, using a printer. The idea was first put forth by a professor of bioengineering named Thomas Boland back in the year 2000. He geniously envisioned a way to replace the ink in his printer with the building blocks of life: cells. This new ink is known as bioink. It was a wild idea at the time, but Boland was determined to make it work. Three years later he filed a patent for the world’s first bioprinting process - it used a modified inkjet printer.
In order to print out an organ, the first thing to do is design a digital model on a computer. Doctors use CT scans of their patients, which gives them all the 3D information they need to build a replica version of the organ. Once they have a printable model, a special bioprinting machine can build the organ layer by layer.
Instead of traditional ink the printers use a material called “bio-ink”, which contains all the living cells that form together to produce actual living tissue. The process is similar to other kinds of 3D printing, except instead of printing a physical object you’re 3D bioprinting living tissue that can become anything from an arm, an ear, kidney, liver, and other vital organs.
Of course, bioprinting a liver is a bit more complicated than printing an iPhone case but nevertheless, they’ve figured it out - at least in theory.
The science is still new, and we’re still figuring out some of the details, but there are many 3D bioprinting applications. Aside from the most noble use, saving people’s lives, think of all the other potential uses in regenerative medicine.
Instead of the pharmaceutical (and cosmedic) industry using human or animal subjects, they could use artificial organs grown in a lab. It could permanently replace animal trials, which would be great news for the industry.
In the case of burn victims, they could have new skin printed and surgically transplanted. You could even bioprint a new face.
There’s so much we could learn from studying artificial organs. Medical students can see up close and personal how the body works and practice performing surgery on actual organs - with no real risk if they make a mistake. Not to mention, there would be no need to extract organs from people after they die.
In the future, 3D bioprinting will be used for all kinds of things besides artificial organs. For example, bioprinting bone tissue for fractures could replace traditional castings. It would take a lot less time to heal, and it would be more effective for recovery.
Bioprinting could also be used to treat diabetes by replacing certain cells in the pancreas with ones which can produce insulin. With over 422 million people affected by this debilitating disease worldwide, this would be a game changer.
There are however, many limitations, complications, and risks involved with 3D bioprinting. It’s just not quite ready yet, which is why there are still so many people waiting for an organ transplant. But, we’re getting closer all the time.
As you might imagine, bioprinters come a long way since 2003.
More accurately, we’re at a phase where they can now print living organ tissue to be used for testing purposes. Leading the way is a company called Organovo, the first 3D printing company to successfully use bioprinted liver tissue patches on mice. They have yet to perform a liver transplant using a fully bioprinted organ, however human trials are expected to begin in 2020.
The science of bioprinting is always evolving. In fact, in 2018 it got 1000 times faster. A company called Prellis Biologics made major headlines when it announced it had developed a new bioprinting technology that would greatly increase the speed it takes to build artificial organs.
This opens up new doors of discovery, since the bioprinting process is very time sensitive. If it takes too long to print and assemble, the living cells cannot survive long enough to convert into living tissue. Being able to bioprint 1000 times faster has huge implications. It will finally enable doctors to manufacture capillaries which can transformed into functioning organs like hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs. It’s a new era for 3D bioprinting, and it’s only going to get better.
It’s not clear when the technology will become easily accessible for the mainstream, but the likelihood of it happening within the next few decades is strong. The bioprinting market is already estimated to be worth $500 million dollar, and could rapidly expand to $10 billion by 2020. Prellis Biologics is predicting that the global tissue engineering market will reach $94 billion by 2024. This would be a huge leap from the $23 billion it was worth in 2015, but with the latest technology now available it certainly makes sense.
It’s definitely a very exciting time to be a bioengeneer. It also gives hope for those who need an organ replacement. Finally, they have the technology and the speed!
The science of bioprinting is improving all the time, and the future of healthcare is looking brighter as a result. However, as with any new science we must be careful with how we use it. Ethics must be considered, as well as safety.
There’s also the question of the 3D printing cost, since clearly it will not be cheap. But if only extremely wealthy people have access to 3D bioprinting - is that fair to others who can’t afford it? Should insurance cover it? How will insurance companies be able to afford artificial organs for everyone?
Aside from the practicalities of bioprinting, there’s also the potential for things to go horribly wrong. It begs the question, are we tampering with the way our bodies were originally designed?
It’s the classic philosophical question Dr. Ian Malcolm raises in Jurassic Park: Just because we can, does it mean that we should? While it may not seem as risky as resurrecting ferocious reptiles from extinction, bioprinting does potentially open a Pandora’s Box of consequences.
Although it’s an extreme scenario, 3D bioprinting could potentially pave the way for an elite race of superhumans. Over time, if we’re not careful, a motivated minority of superhumans could enslave an unsuspecting population of humans with inferior health. Or what if, just to play devil’s advocate, the machines gain too much intelligence, turn evil, and begin bioprinting humanoid replicas that are programmed to destroy us?
Of course, it’s ridiculous to believe that would ever happen. We’d see it coming and put a stop to it - right? In any event, the benefits of bioprinting are just too great not to pursue. We’re talking about major life saving potential, and a wide range of other positive uses we have yet to even discover.
Plus it’s already happening whether you like it or not. Doctors are always advancing healthcare through science, and they won’t stop anytime soon. The future you have read about is happening now. Print yourself out a nice meal and enjoy it on 3D printed plates.
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