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3D-Printed Body Parts

Back in 2014, I attended a 3D Printing Conference at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. The first day of the conference focused on how 3-D printing would impact manufacturing. The conference showed off some amazing printed items including just about everything imaginable including a car. One of the presenters took to the stage and showed off his 3D-printed shoes. I found the second day more interesting as it focused on 3-D printing in the medicine.

The opening keynote speaker was Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Dr. Atala is impressive. He is an American bioengineer, urologist, and pediatric surgeon. He is a pioneering researcher in the field of 3D bioprinting and organ regeneration. He is known for creating the first 3D bio-printed tissues and organs, including bladders, ears, and blood vessels. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and recognitions for his contributions to medicine and is the author of several books and scientific articles.

 The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called regenerative medicine the “next evolution of medical treatments”. In 2014, when I met Dr. Atala, the Wake Forest laboratory had already created 22 different human tissues, including muscles that can expand and contract. Dr. Atala said that regenerative medicine can not only improve the quality of life for many people but save lives. With the potential to heal, Dr. Atala believes regenerative medicine will revolutionize health care.

Patients with diseased or injured organs can be treated with transplanted organs. However, there is a severe shortage of donor organs. In the United States, as of October 26, 2023, there are over 103,000 people waiting for life-saving organ transplants. The numbers get worse every year due to the aging population. Regenerative medicine and tissue engineering may solve the problem. By applying the principles of cell transplantation, material sciences, and bio-engineering, teams such as Dr. Atala’s, are able to construct biological substitutes which may restore and maintain normal function in diseased and injured tissues.

3D printing is playing a role. Living tissue can be printed using cells (instead of ink) from the patient . Rather than replacing an entire organ, regenerative medicine uses a replacement technique which supplements a failing tissue or organ. Cells can be extracted from a functioning part of an organ, enhanced and grown outside of the body, and then be printed on a lattice structure. The result is then implanted in the patient. Since the cells came from the patients body, there is no rejection. There have been major advances in the technology since 2014. Dr. Atala said regenerative medicine “promises to be one of the most pervasive influences on public health in the modern era”.

Now, I will summarize what is already possible, the challenges and limitations, and some recent developments. Bone grafts, skin patches, cartilage implants, and blood vessels are being used in clinical trials and showing promising results. Miniaturized kidneys and livers have been created for drug testing and research purposes. Bioprinting of cells is an emerging technique which allows scientists to print living cells onto scaffolds to create complex tissues and structures.

One of the challenges is complexity. Printing entire organs with all their functions is still a major challenge. Bio-printed organs need to be made from the patient’s own cells to avoid rejection. This can be difficult and time-consuming. 3D printing technology is still expensive, and the cost of producing bio-printed organs is likely to be high.

The timeline is encouraging. Within 5-7 years, we may see the first clinical trials of bio-printed organs in humans. Within 10-20 years, bio-printed organs could become a common treatment option for organ failure. Beyond 20 years, we may be able to print more complex organs, such as hearts and brains.

Now, some recent advancements in 2023. In February, researchers in the United Kingdom successfully bio-printed a miniature ear using human cells. In July, scientists in Israel developed a method for printing blood vessels with complex structures. In October, researchers in Australia reported they had successfully 3D-printed a functional bone graft.

The most recent breakthrough, reported in New Atlas, is scientists, for the first time, have combined the six primary skin cell types with specialized hydrogels to ‘print’ a thick, multilayered skin which, when transplanted, successfully integrated with surrounding tissue to heal wounds faster and with less scarring. Not surprisingly, the breakthrough occurred at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Dr. Atala said, “Comprehensive skin healing is a significant clinical challenge, affecting millions of individuals worldwide, with limited options. These results show that the creation of full thickness human bioengineered skin is possible and promotes quicker healing and more naturally appearing outcomes.”

Lab-made skin is a growing area of medical research, and biomedical companies are seeing it as a new way to test products instead of using animals. The Wake Forest research was performed on mice. Dr. Atala and his team are hopeful the research will move forward for study with humans.

Overall, 3D-printed body parts have the potential to change the face of medicine. While there are still significant challenges to overcome, the future of this technology is promising. You can read more about this in Health Attitude: Unraveling and Solving the Complexities of Healthcare.

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