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Creating Transplant Organs With 3D Bioprinters

Margaret is a retired software designer/developer who spends her time traveling, writing, and doing freelance web design and development.

MakerBot 3D Printer

MakerBot 3D Printer

What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing is a process through which solid objects are built by feeding a three-dimensional model of the object into a 3D printer. The printer then builds the object by creating numerous very fine layers of material until the desired object is fully formed. This is quite similar to the way a dot matrix printer forms an image on a page.

Applications of This Technology

The 3D printing process has been around since the mid-1980s, but recently there has been a surge of interest in these printers for manufacturing and home use. As prices of these machines are going down, the number of objects that can be created is going up. Everything from shoes, eyeglasses, jewelry, and toys to guns and aerospace parts can be produced from a 3D printer. The global 3D printing market is expected to hit $54.96 billion USD by 2027.

There are so many exciting aspects of this technology, but the most revolutionary and intriguing is its ability to produce living tissues and organs for human transplant. For example, a titanium jaw was recently printed out by a 3D printer and successfully inserted into an 83-year-old woman. This is called bioprinting.

What Is a Bioprinter?

A bioprinter is a 3D printer that uses living cells as ink, depositing layers of biological material to build an object. This technology is being hotly pursued by many researchers in the hopes that eventually entire organs will be created that can be used for human transplant. The beauty of such as technology is that these organs would be custom built from a patient's own cells, and so their body would accept the new organ without the rejection factor.

How Bioprinting Has Evolved

There have been many innovations in this field since its early days in the mid-2000s.

Professor Makoto Nakamura's Printer

An early pioneer, Professor Makoto Nakamura, developed the first working bioprinter in 2008. This printer can print out biotubing similar to a blood vessel (see video below).

The Organovo NovaGen MMX Bio-Printer

The first commercial organ printer, the NovaGen MMX was produced in 2009 by the SanDiego based company Organovo. In December of 2012, Organovo announced a partnership with Autodesk, Inc., a leader in engineering software, to create the first 3D design software for their bioprinter.

Using two print heads, the NovaGen MMX printer lays down a scaffold of biopaper made of collagen, gelatin or other hydrogels with one print head, and the other places ink made of human cells into the scaffold. Layer by layer, the final object is built up into the proper shape. Over a few days, the cells merge into a piece of tissue.

So far the company has created lung, cardiac muscle and blood vessels. Their goal is to produce full organs. They predict that the kidney will be the first to be produced. It may not look exactly like a human kidney, but it will function as one, cleaning waste products from the blood.



Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Wake Forest scientists were the first in the world to successfully transplant a laboratory grown bladder into a human. Today, Wake Forest is using a 3D bioprinter to engineer sophisticated prototypes of organs. The goal is to make functioning kidneys and other solid organs like hearts and livers, in addition to solid organs like the uterus.

They are also developing on-site “printing” of skin for severe wounds. This could be used to repair the wounds of soldiers with life-threatening burns. Using ink jet technology, skin cells would be placed into a print cartridge and printed directly on the site of the wound. Watch the video below as director Anthony Atala demonstrates their amazing technology.

In February 2016, researchers at the Wake Forest North Carolina hospital announced that they successfully implanted ear, bone and muscle structures into animals. Since the structures matured into functional tissue and developed new systems of blood vessels, it's very likely that they could be implanted into humans. Doctor Atala believes that in the future this technology will enable the printing of custom organs of any size or shape.

University of Pennsylvania: Sugar Lattice

University of Pennsylvania recently announced that is was successful in producing a vascular network by using a custom-built 3D printer that prints out a sugar lattice (how sweet it is!). Once hardened, these sugar scaffolds can be surrounded with a biogel containing cells from the desired organ type. Once the sugar cage dissolves, there's a network of living tissue through which blood (or nutrient materials) can flow. Using this technology, rat liver cells were produced and kept functioning for eight days.

The Impact of 3D Bioprinters on Our Future

This new technology is not as far away as you may think. Printed arteries may be used in heart transplants in as little as five years. More complex organs may be possible in as few as 10 years. This is wonderful news for the many people that will need organ transplants.

However, there may be many societal implications from these amazing advances. Will the cost be so prohibitively high that only the very wealthy will be able to afford new organs, or will they be freely available to anyone? Will we see an enormous leap in life extension? If so, will the planet be horribly overpopulated? Will being able to get new organs easily tend to make us more careless with our health? Only time will tell.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on November 14, 2013:

This technology is actually showing up more in popular media. There was an episode on Gray's Anatomy where Dr. Gray is using a 3D printer. You're right - it's going to help plenty of people, and is a giant step forward. Thanks for reading and commenting - I appreciate it.

Karen Shiley from Washington on November 14, 2013:

Wow this technology could help so many people. Great article!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on June 08, 2013:

Au fait - thanks so much for returning, and for posting this on Pinterest. I'm on Pinterest as well - I'll be sure to follow you!

C E Clark from North Texas on June 07, 2013:

You have several exceptional hubs, but this is currently my favorite. I've come back to it because I've just opened a Pinterest account and I'm going to pin this hub to my "Science" board. While I'm here, I'll share this hub again with my followers.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 12, 2013:

gconeyhiden - It is exciting, but I don't know about the perfect 3D kid - talk about a Brave New World. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

gconeyhiden from Brooklyn, N.Y.C. U.S.A on April 12, 2013:

perhaps in 15 years they will make God......knows....what? the perfect 3D kid. perfect pet? God? this is exciting to say the least.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 10, 2013:

Patty Inglish - Thanks so much for your vote, and especially for sharing - I really do appreciate it!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 10, 2013:

TIMETRAVELER2 - I think that in the next 10 years we will many scientific advances that will be truly amazing and save lives. I'm so glad that you stopped by, and that this article has given you hope. Thanks so much for your votes and for sharing.

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 09, 2013:

Rated Up and shared with followers.

Sondra Rochelle from USA on April 09, 2013:

I am so blown away by this article that I can hardly catch my breath. What a great service you have done by researching and publishing this information. As a person who suffers from multiple health problems, I can see all kinds of ways this technology can improve my life. I cannot wait for it to be ready. Yes, there will be societal implications, but my God...what this will do for people is unbelievable! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Voted up, shared, et al. I absolutely love you for this one!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 09, 2013:

Angela - I'll have to read about the face reconstruction - sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on April 09, 2013:

Peggy - Yes, this is such amazing technology that holds enormous potential. We live in amazing times, don't we? Thanks so much for reading and sharing.

Angela Kane from Las Vegas, Nevada on April 08, 2013:

I just read about this today about the reconstruction of a man's face. It looks very interesting and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 08, 2013:

Hi Margaret,

This new technology is absolutely amazing! Wouldn't it be wonderful if new tissue and even organs could be replicated without the fear of rejection. The costs at first will probably be very high but if it becomes mainstream in the future, many people will benefit from this type of innovative research and development. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Science fiction like Star Trec often comes to pass as fact in later years as Au fait referenced in her comment. Up and interesting votes and will share.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on February 09, 2013:

This whole thing is fascinating to me as well. The advances that they are making in this whole area are mind boggling. Thanks so much for reading and for the votes - always good to hear from you!

C E Clark from North Texas on February 09, 2013:

I've seen these 3D printers before making other objects (not human tissue). I thought they were amazing then and never imagined they might be used to make human organs. They remind me of the replicators on StarTrek. This is a great hub on a fascinating subject. Voted up and IA.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on August 11, 2012:

Gamerelated, the whole 3D technology is so amazing. Both the regular 3D printing and the bioprinting have the potential to completely change society. By the way, congratulations on being nominated for the HubNugget award - I put my vote in!

Gamerelated from California on August 11, 2012:

Hello mperrottet, I think this technology is amazing. I read an article in Wired Magazine about 6 or 7 months ago about 3D printers, but these printers were used for making rare parts for computers and machines. They talked about how these 3D printers were going to fuel a new DIY movement, but these 3D bio-medical machines can make organs, wow.

I also saw an article today on Yahoo that says there is a 3D printer that can print a house in 20 hours. I wish I could just print an extra copy of myself, so that I could write Hubs twice as fast.

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on August 02, 2012:

Thanks for the vote up and share, Stephanie. I don't think many people are aware of them yet, or of the enormous potential that these devices have to change our lives.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on August 02, 2012:

I had read a little about 3-D printers before, but never heard of the 3-D bioprinters. This is absolutely mindboggling! Thanks so much for this fascinating and well-researched article! Voted up and shared!

Margaret Perrottet (author) from San Antonio, FL on July 31, 2012:

They are truly amazing, MyWebs, and probably will have a huge impact on us in the future. Thanks so much for reading, and the votes. Much appreciated!

Anthony Goodley from Sheridan, WY on July 31, 2012:

These 3D printers are amazing devices, especially when they are used to print out human tissue and organs.

Great hub you have here. Voted up, awesome, interesting and shared.