Three-dimensional organ printing might be a relatively new phenomenon, but the idea of curing a sick part of a patient’s body by using healthy alternative dates back centuries. In fact, an article on the Smithsonian details the history of this practice starting all the way back in the third century AD. Then, two patron saints of surgeons, Cosmas and Damian, allegedly attached the “leg of a recently deceased Ethiopian Moor onto a white Roman … a subject depicted by numerous Renaissance artists.” Over time, the field of medicine and organ transplants, in particular, saw many changes and developed rapidly, until, in 1954, history marked the first successful organ transplant.

In 1984, 30 years later, Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act, which “established the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN) to maintain a national registry for organ matching.” However, the demand for organs simply outran the supply of donated ones, a problem that continues to plague surgical science even today. Depending on the organ in need, the National Kidney Foundation estimates that the time it takes for a patient’s name to reach the top of a transplant list can often exceed months and even years.  For instance, the average wait time for a kidney is 3-5 years. Many of these patients, unfortunately, succumb to illness before an organ for their use is retrieved from another body.

What is 3D-Printing of Organs?

3D-Printing, also known as Rapid Prototyping, is the creation of new objects from similar to existing objects, through the use of materials like metals, ceramics, polymers, and biodegradable materials. In the medical sector, 3D organ-printing has many advantages. As stated in a previous article on The Healthcare Guys, some of these include:

  • The ability to reduce surgery time significantly. In fact, research shows that 3D printing. has been able to reduce surgery time from 97 hours to 23 hours.
  • Improvements in efficiency and accuracy of surgery.
  • The ability to save lives, in a timely manner.

To 3D bio-print an organ, a blueprint of an organ with is vascular design is first prepared. A bio-printing plan is then chalked out. The stem cells are isolated, classified and loaded into the relevant printer. Finally, the organ in question is bio-printed and set in a bioreactor before translation. In theory, this sounds like a relatively straightforward process. However, organ printing does have its fair share of challenges, and inadequate execution of the printing process could have dire repercussions for the concerned patient. From producing detailed vascularization or artificial organs to finding printable and medically safe material, there is still a long way to go before organ printing is economically feasible on a large scale.

Why Do We Need Organ Printing?

Notwithstanding the challenges, organ printing is the need of the hour. Consider the case of Luke Massella, a spina bifida patient, whose bladder malfunction quickly escalated into kidney failure. Massella might have succumbed to a lifetime of dialysis, if not for the ingenuity of his doctors paired with advances in technology. Using a piece of his failing bladder, his doctors grew him a “new bladder” under laboratory conditions. Using additive manufacturing, aka 3D printing, doctors were able “to create not only flat tissues such as skin but also tubular structures for the vascular system, along with hollow organs such as the bladder.” This new bladder was readily accepted by Massell’s body since doctors had crafted it from his own cells. Cases like these show how organ printing is extremely beneficial, significantly reducing the chances of foreign organ rejection in one’s body.

Secondly, organ printing, when scaled up, has the ability to provide organs to those most in need, at competitive prices. By 2030, there will be a sharp increase in the number of people over 60 years of age. In fact, the aged population is expected to reach about 1.5 billion. An aging population means that the number of organ transplants needed in the near future is only going to increase. Additionally, as life expectancy increases, the availability of donated organs is reduced. In this context, the demand for organs, prosthetics, and printed alternatives is of utmost importance.

Thus, 3D-printing of organs has the potential to completely revolutionize transplant surgery and tissue-engineering, The 3D-printing niche within the medical industry is expected to be worth at least $3.5 billion by 2025, with an annual growth of 17.7 percent between 2017 and 2025.

The advantages of organ printing are numerous. From solving the problems of organ availability and minimizing the risk of organ-rejection, to quicker recovery time as a result of using a patient’s own cells to craft an organ; patient healthcare is greatly improved when customized organs are made accessible. 3D printed organs also significantly reduce general surgical risk, as surgeons are able to fabricate a mode organ as per a patient’s organ specifications. In turn, surgeons can better visualize the exact organ that needs surgery, and even rehearse the surgery on a printed model organ if necessary. Finally, lesser utilization of operation theatre time lowers healthcare costs for patients, increases profit margins for providers, and boosts overall efficiency. Thus, surmounting the challenges associated with organ printing is critical so that more people across the world have access to better and cheaper healthcare options.