3D printing is making great inroads in the field of medicine, from customized and low cost prosthetics to realistic anatomical models used for preparation of surgery, it is finding wide applicability in medical sciences. But the most ambitious goal that scientists, doctors, and biomedical engineers have set before themselves is perhaps 3D printing of living functional organs. They have zeroed in on the process to make it possible and very soon we might have a 3D printed heart ready for transplant. This is an area that is creating a lot of excitement and surprisingly it is the startup companies that are leading the way.
Biolife4D is a startup that is looking to bioprint a viable human heart suitable for transplant. By using the patient’s own cells they will be able to bioprint a heart that is an exact genetic match. In fact, the 3D printing technique will allow them to bioprint a heart of the exact shape and size as that of the patient.
The first step will be to take a MRI scan of the patient’s heart. The second step of the process will involve taking a sample of blood cells from the patient and converting them into stem cells. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to morph into specialized cells through the process of differentiation. In this case they would be transformed into cardiomyocytes or the cells that form the heart muscle. Stem cells also have the ability to multiply through mitosis. Thus a single blood sample would be sufficient for producing enough cells for the whole process.
In the next phase, the cardiac myocytes would be combined with a nutrient rich hydrogel to form a bioink which would then be fed into a specialized 3D printer. The 3D printer will lay down the bioink in layers based on the MRI scan. The printer would also lay down the layers of a supporting biologic scaffolding structure around the bioink. The scaffold is meant to be biodegradable and its main purpose in the process will be to support the bioink while the cells are busy combining.
After the complete form of the heart is 3D printed, it would be placed in a bioreactor which would mimic the nutrient and oxygen-rich conditions inside a human body. At this point nature will take over and the cells will start fusing together to form living tissue and finally a functional heart. The 3D printed heart would be allowed to mature and strengthen before being readied for transplantation.
The process might sound straightforward but it is based on decades of research and advancements in regenerative medicine, adult stem cell biology, and computing technology. But it is additive manufacturing technology and recent advances in that field which has made it possible to bring these achievements together and has allowed scientists to strive towards something greater.
Currently the process is in the development stage but this is the final blueprint for the company although its realisation will take some time. Thus for the time being Biolife4D is looking to create heart tissue that can be used by researchers to test drugs. In this respect they are in line with companies such as Organovo that are bioprinting liver tissue that is being used for testing drug toxicity.
A 3D printed heart will be able to address many of the challenges associated with organ transplantation. If successful, the replication of this process for heart and other organs could one day eliminate the long waiting list of patients who are unable to find a viable organ match. In fact, there are not enough organ donations to meet the urgent needs of thousands of patients. And even for those who are fortunate enough to receive an organ, certain problems such as organ rejection continue to threaten their chances of survival.
Since a 3D printed heart will be formed using the patient’s own cells, there is a possibility to completely eradicate the problem of organ rejection. Patients will no longer be required to undergo immunosuppressant therapy to prevent organ rejection which will greatly benefit the patients because immunosuppressant therapy hinders normal functioning of the body’s immune system leaving it vulnerable to a host of diseases.
Research in 3D printing organs is rapidly gaining ground and attracting investments. It might well be possible that in the near future a person suffering from organ failure visits a hospital and returns with a completely new organ transplanted within him/her in less than a week’s time. Know more how researchers are 3D Printing human tissue with hyper precision.