3D Printed Organs

Coming soon in a body near you

by Olivier Barron and Guillaume Gaudet,
PhD candidates at Polytechnique School of Montreal

One day, you wake up with severe belly and back pain. You also notice that your skin is yellowish. You make the great decision to get to a hospital as fast as possible. After going through many tests, the verdict comes as a painful shock: pancreatic cancer. You need a new pancreas if you want to live another day to see the sun. Unfortunately, there is no pancreas available at the hospital and you cannot afford to wait any longer. This is where 3D printed organs come in play and will revolutionize health services. Instead of giving up on life, the medical team will scan your pancreas and create its digital model. This model will then be printed one layer at a time on a special printer that will use your own cells rather than a normal ink cartridge. It will carefully deposit each cell in a pattern until having a complete layer of only one cell. It will then proceed to add another pattern above the first creating a 2 cells thick tissue and so on. In a couple of hours, with the right chemicals to stimulate cellular growth, your new pancreas will be ready for a transplantation.

This situation highlights a major and actual challenge in health care sector, which is the shortage of organs. The problem, as stated by researcher Anthony Atala, is simple and goes as followed: “While the number of patients in need of a transplant has doubled over the past years, the the number of available organs has barely increased”. Moreover, you would have to be compatible with the donor. This need for more organs has pushed the scientific community to find a new way to provide them without harvesting from donor’s body. This challenge might seem actual but goes back to 1938 when the first book from Alexis Carrel and Charles A. Lindbergh went out explaining their methods for growing and maintaining an artificial organ. Since those two scientists and much more have spent thousands of hours working on this issue without achieving a viable solution.

Today, this challenge is mainly tackled by the regenerative medicine teams which are interested in every means possible to reconstruct part of the human body. Such strategies include building scaffolds, a structure compatible with your body that can receive certain type of cell. This way, you can build a “sheet” or a “block” of cells in the exact same shape as the wound in your body. The scaffold ensure that cells grows in the right formation and respect a certain layout. This type of regeneration strategy has prove itself for healing wounds but fails to construct an entire organ.

But, hold on! If we understand the challenge correctly, aren’t we in need of a process able to lay out small particles in a certain 3 dimensionals pattern. Couldn’t we combine another major discovery of the century with our previous idea of scaffolding? Living in the 21st century, there’s great chances you have heard about 3D printing, even the elders have been introduced to the technology.

It is a prototyping process which produce a 3D model by adding successive layers of material one above the other. It has proven to be cheap, fast and effective for creating small pieces, glasses, tools, furnitures and more. The process has even been applied to build a house in less than 24 hours!

In the world time, the collective time, there is what we call trends amongst the scientific community. As it is for fashion or even movie genre, at certain periods of time, a majority of scientists might all be using a certain technology, theory or process to tackle their own research because of the exposure this discovery gets. It might be very effective, simple and powerful, however trends have to be chosen with a lot of care. The popularity of a certain technology doesn’t always ensure good results. By choosing the same path as every other scientists, you might be doing cognitive tunneling which means you are closing yourself to other solutions by focusing too much on the one at hand. Sometimes, it is more useful to think out of the box.

However and fortunately for Dr .Anthony Atala and his team at the Wake Forest institute of regenerative medicine, the 3D Printing trend that is emerging since the 2000’s has been an end to a meaning.


TED; Ideas Worth Spreading. Anthony Atala: Printing a Human Kidney.