Science fiction pushes the boundaries of the methods, theories, and tools that we have today. They allow us an insight into a future that could be, albeit in a more exaggerated and fantastical way. One of the more intriguing concepts of science fiction is being able to recover your body parts with ease and without worry.

 

With many people on organ waitlists for hearts, kidneys, and other vital organs, it is becoming increasingly important for us to develop better tools to address this limitation. One of the tools being used to help heal and address some of these concerns is 3D printing.

 

3D printing started out as a fad that swept the nation. The thought of being able to print almost anything from a batch of polymers was fascinating and became a useful tool for many. From toys to food, 3D printing allowed many ideas to begin growing around it. One of those ideas was creating body parts using a 3D printer.

 

Recently, scientists have begun looking at 3D printing as a means of creating organs and other body parts as a future technology to address the demands for organs.

 

The 3D printers would be bioprinters and would be used to create tissues and organs made of human cells (the “ink” of the printer). The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicinefocuses on conceptualizing and bringing forward this technology for medical use. One of their work includes creating an ear using 3D printing.

 

The process starts by creating a hydrogel ear-like scaffold that was pliable and porous. The scaffold is then covered in skin cells since it is for the ear, and cartilage cells. These cells can begin to propagate on and around the scaffold to eventually form an ear-like structure. The scaffold is biodegradable and eventually degrades leaving only the ear-like biological structure behind.

 

This would all be done using the patient’s own cells because it would ensure that the organ is not rejected by the body if it is to be implanted.

 

For more complex organs like kidneys or hearts, researchers have to start from the ground up and understand how to create these organs in a lab. This is an important step because we need to program the bio-printer to do this and it cannot be done unless we understand the intricacies of the building process. Otherwise, we risk creating a mass of cells that becomes a detriment rather than help a patient.

 

As we increase the difficulty from ears to things like brains or entire legs, it becomes increasingly difficult and complex. This means that the bioprinting process will take a relatively long time to reach us and achieve the power of those of science fiction.


A small liver scaffold This is one of many scaffolds they are working on to increase the complexity and understanding of tissue building. Credit: Wake Forest Institute

Fortunately, researchers like those from the Wake Forest institute have begun the process towards understanding the process of organ and tissue building. As the field continues to grow,many researchers have begun their own bioprinting experiments to build more proof of concepts for what we can eventually do in the future.

 

Researchers at Organovo, one of many new biotech companies focusing on creating tissues and organs, have been working on creating printed liver tissues so that they can be used for drug testing new treatments. Similarly, many other companies are creating organs so that they can use them for drug discovery.