The prospect of 3D printed human organs has been an exciting topic in the biomedical community for some time now. Although researchers haven’t yet managed to print and implant anything yet, they are making significant strides in tissue engineering that could one day lead to the printing of fully-functional organs for use by people.
A prime example of this is the pioneering work of Dr. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Popular Mechanics recently announced that Atala and his team successfully printed and sustained beating heart cells. Although the cells (called “tissue organoids”) don’t form an entire heart themselves, they can be assembled into larger functioning shapes.
The organoids were sustained in a medium that kept them at human body temperature, and could be manipulated with electrical and chemical stimuli to change beating patterns. The researchers were first able to develop the cells by genetically modifying human skin cells, changing them into induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells. Dr. Atala and his team reprogrammed these cells into the beating organoids that measure .25 millimeters in diameter.
According to Ivy Mead, a graduate student at Wake Forest who worked on the project, ”The heart organoid beats because it contains specialized cardiac cells and because those cells are receiving the correct environmental cues.”
The ultimate goal of the project on beating heart cells is not to produce a fully functional organ in this case, nevertheless the research can help inform how 3D printed polymer-based tissues function, encouraging new methods of assembling human organs.
The research is just one small advancement in larger efforts by Atala and colleagues on tissue engineering. The team has already successfully implanted several lab-grown organs into human patients, including a vagina, bladder, and urethra.
An additional goal of the project, funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, is to develop organs that they can use to ethically test the human body’s response to pathogens and contagions such as Ebola or harmful gasses. The program is aptly called ‘Body-on-a-Chip.’
“Miniature lab-engineered organ-like hearts, lungs, livers, and blood vessels – linked together with a circulating blood substitute – will be used both to predict the effects of chemical and biologic agents and to test the effectiveness of potential treatments,” said Atala to Popular Mechanics.
While not all of Dr. Atala’s research involves 3D printing, it would seem that he is a person to watch in the biomedical 3D printing community, as he was also in the news for developing two new advancements in 3D bioprinting. The first, a 3D printer that could produce large organs such as kidneys and bladders, and the second, a new ink-jet technology to print skin cells for people suffering from serious burns, such as soldiers.
Photo Credits: 3Ders.org