According to the American Transplant Foundation, the national transplant waiting list encompasses over 100,000 hopeful souls. Remarkably, the total number of organ donors in the United States is just under 18,000. The staggering difference between the supply and demand helps account for the troublesome estimation that every day 20 people die due to the lack of organs for transplantation. Joel ArunSursas, a Medical Doctorwith a track record of harmonizing patient care with engineering, believes the answer to such a crisis lies within technological advancements. Specifically, manufacturing organs via 3D Printing.
While the mere idea of crafting organs may sound akin to a Philip K. Dick novel, the road is already lit.
Traditional Organ Transplant
Why the need for innovation? As mentioned earlier, the organ shortage is the first hurdle to cross in what is otherwise seen as a miraculous undertaking. A single donor can save up to eight lives by donating the following: heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, kidneys, and intestines. That being said, the path to transplant remains arduous.
Per Organdonor.gov, in 2018, 61% of the donors were deceased. At first glance, the statistic may appear morbid, but consider this: only 3 in 1,000 people die in a manner fit for organ donation. As a result, the prospects of locating an organ match are further reduced. Prospective kidney recipients, which account for the majority of people on the waiting list, can at least put their faith in living donors.
However, any surgical operation is not without complications and uncertainties. Least of all, an organ transplant. Even if a patient matches with a living donor in time, the outcome is unclear. Specifically, after reviewing the risks, the donor may retreat from the procedure. Or the transplant may fail the recipient altogether and cause long-term health issues for the donor.
Driven by this somewhat grim outlook, doctors and bioengineers are working together on alternative approaches with the goal of saving lives otherwise potentially lost to conventional options.
The adolescence of 3D Printing, aka additive manufacturing, dates back to the early 1980s but did not catch the eye of the consumer market until the 2010s. But, the concept is straightforward enough. Rather than succumb to the limitations of a 2D plane, a 3D printer creates objects in layers by allowing the cartridges to move in a 3-dimensional space: up, down, left, right, forward, and backward.
3D printing techniques have evolved over the years, incorporating a variety of materials such as polymers, metal, and ceramics to print an object. Still, regardless of the method, the starting point is always the same. First, the object must be digitally built and rendered using modeling software. Only once the computer program has vetted the computer-aided design (CAD), can the forging process begin.
Since CAD is nearly limitless in scope and imagination, along with the fact that additive manufacturing doesn’t rely on traditional sculpting procedures, 3D printers can create almost any shape. Thus, opening the door to the medical community.
Due to recent advancements in 3D printer precision as well as material diversity, scientists have made leaps and bounds in bio-fabrication, specifically in the field commonly referred to as 3D bioprinting.
In layman’s terms, bioprinting is the process of producing tissue for reconstructive surgery via 3D printing technology.
The concept is similar enough to classic 3D Printing and relies upon 3D computer-generated models to dictate the positioning and layering, though the process is profoundly different in terms of material. As opposed to constructing an object with polymers, bioprinting utilizes biomaterial or bioink.
Bioink may include living cells and therefore is often harvested from the patient and cultivated until such time when it’s inserted into the printer.
To assist with the construction of complex structures such as blood vessels, bioprinters may also incorporate a synthetic gel to help the cells within the biomaterial stabilize and grow as desired. A scaffolding technique if you will. Even with cells that rely solely on their inherent properties to position themselves, scientists can use the printer to influence and control the final architecture.
Despite the simplicity of the visual comparison to a standard 3D printer, bioprinting is extraordinarily complex and relatively new territory. As such, bioengineers are employing several methods that range from inkjets to lasers to test the feasibility of bioprinting long-term. So, although the current tech is not yet sophisticated enough to build complex human organs, recent discoveries prophesize a promising future.
Science, fueled with the desire to do good and aided by the technological advancements of the age, is capable of shattering the mammoth medical barriers inflicted upon humankind. Regenerative medicine is no exception.
In 1999, 3D printing left science fiction and became a reality when doctors successfully transplanted a bioprinted urinary bladder into a patient. The printer constructed the organ based on a CT scan of the patient’s bladder and used a tissue sample to scaffold the biomaterial.
Earlier this year, bioengineers Jordan Miller of Rice University and Kelly Stevens of the University of Washington announced a bioprinting breakthrough in creating vascular networks that mimic the body’s natural passageways for blood, air, lymph, and other vital fluids. Their innovative work also includes a bioprinting system that supports intravascular features and is a major step towards fully functional 3D printed replacement organs such as hearts.
Every journey begins with a single step. While bioprinting research is accelerating at a healthy rate, realistically, it will take years, perhaps decades, for the technology and the science to perfectly sync. The absolute precision and detail required to craft a vital human organ for a transplant are not yet within reach. However, the medical field and patients should not lose hope. The milestones thus far in regenerative medicine are the result of hard work and the passionate collaboration of pioneering engineers, scientists, and doctors alike. With enough time, thousands of lives can be saved due to bioprinting and reduce the organ transplant waitlist to zero.
About Joel ArunSursas
Joel ArunSursas is a Medical Doctor and Health Informatician motivated to solve administrative problems in healthcare. His determination to work tirelessly to bridge the gap between doctors and engineers is resulting in medical technology solutions that improve patient outcomes, enhance monitoring, and protect patient privacy. Dr. Joel ArunSursas is an effective communicator who facilitates the achievement of team goals.