The technology is in its infancy, yet bioengineers are creating human tissue through computerized adaptive manufacturing, or 3-D printing right now. Today.
A Wall Street Journal article, Printing Evolves, An Inkjet for Living Tissue, has details.
Scientists can build tissue, such as a blood vessel, one dot of tissue at a time, just like other 3-D printing applications. Around the tissue a separate nozzle places a water-soluble gel, called hydrogel, that works like a mold to hold the tissue in place until the dots of tissue knit together. After the printing is done, the tissue is stored in a solution that provides nutrients. Then after a few weeks to stabilize, the hydrogel is washed away.
What is in the far distant future? Replacement organs tailor-made for you:
Eventually, biomedical engineers hope to print out tailored tissues suitable for surgery and entire organs that could be used in transplants, to eliminate long delays for patients awaiting suitable donor organs and the risk their bodies may reject the tissue.
There are obviously an incredible number of obstacles. In what is obviously an exquisitely short list, here are a few of them:
The technology faces many hurdles. It may be five years or more before even the simplest of these experimental prototypes is ready for clinical testing. Problems range from the challenge of keeping large tissue structures alive to the lack of computerized tools for personalized organ design.
In the near future, printed tissue would still have tremendous value. It could be used for a first-round of efficacy and safety tests, which the article suggests would be more accurate than the methods currently used:
In the near term, Organovo has concentrated on developing 3-D cell cultures suitable for drug-discovery assays and toxicity tests, a global market currently valued at about $11 billion a year, according to BCC Research. In March, the National Institutes of Health gave the company a $290,000 grant to study ways to print 3-D liver cells—an important cell type for toxicology tests.
As you ponder the incredible hurdles that must be cleared to reach the potential of 3-D printed organs, remember the size and cost of the very early computers. Remember the size, purchase price, and ink cost of the very first laser printers. Ponder the jump from thermal fax machines to sending pdf files by e-mail.
Way cool. Check out the full article.