Recently there have been groundbreaking advances in regenerative medicine, thanks in part to 3D printers. Bioengineers are close to being able to 3D print new body parts such as ears and noses.
Up until now scientists were only able to print simple structures, such as blood vessels or an airway scaffold to aid breathing. But scientists at Wake University in North Carolina are 3D printing scaffold structures for cell to grow on for complex facial parts such as ears and noses.
Conventional replacement ears are made from artificial materials and rarely look natural or perform well. As the patient’s own cells are used a 3D printed body part looks more realistic and is less likely to be rejected by the patient’s body.
The goal of this research is to produce whole organs, such as lungs or kidneys, which can be used for human transplant. Although scientists are edging closer to this, it could take between 10 and 20 years for this to happen.
‘It’s almost like taking an apartment building, moving everybody out and then really trying to repopulate that apartment building with different cells,’ said Dr. John LaMattina of the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Dr Anthony Atala has already 3D printed a kidney scaffold from a gel-like biodegradable material which includes a mixture of cells to produce a kidney layer-by-layer.
Another method to build organs involves taking an organ and washing the cells off the inert scaffolding that holds them together, and then plants the scaffolding with new cells. It is hoped that this process can be used to “humanize” pig organs for transplant, by replacing the pig cells with human ones.
Doris Taylor of the Texas Heart Institue in Houston believes the future is in a pig matrix covered with a patients cells and has already created a beating rat heart with this technique.
It is hoped that in the future patients will donate their cells and then a lab would use them, or cells made from them, to populate a scaffold that is shaped like the organ that they need.
However, Dr Harold Ott of Massachusetts General Hospital has reported that lab-made kidneys in rats didn’t perform as well as regular kidneys. Although, he contends that they might be good enough to get a patient off dialysis.
Dr Ott believes that human studies with lab-grown organs may start within 10 years, but other researchers are not as optimistic.