Over the years, 3D printing has found more and more real-world uses across a variety of industries. Although it is most commonly used to print rigid, non-changing parts and structures, researchers believe its greatest potential lies elsewhere. Many believe that the technology could be used to print human organs that could be transplanted into patients that need them.
Thanks to a new 3D printing method developed by engineers from the University of Buffalo, that future is moving closer to reality. The technique makes it possible to print complex parts in minutes rather than hours. It could be key to 3D printing human organs.
There are a few main types of 3D printing that are in-use today. One of them is stereolithography, a technique that uses lasers and liquid resin to create solid parts. The Buffalo team found that it also works with hydrogels, the material used to make things like contact lenses.
Researchers believe that using hydrogels with 3D printing could be perfect for replicating things like blood vessels inside larger organ structures. Chi Zhou, the co-lead author of the study says, “Our method allows for the rapid printing of centimeter-sized hydrogel models. It signiﬁcantly reduces part deformation and cellular injuries caused by the prolonged exposure to the environmental stresses you commonly see in conventional 3D printing methods.”
Importantly, the method is also much faster than other types of 3D printing. The researchers demonstrated this by printing an artificial hand in just 19 minutes. They note that the task would have taken around six hours with more conventional printing methods.
The video in the player below shows just how fast the process is.
The study’s other co-lead author, Ruogang Zhao, says, “The technology we’ve developed is 10-50 times faster than the industry standard, and it works with large sample sizes that have been very difficult to achieve previously.”
The team’s work was recently published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials. It was partially funded by a grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering as well as the National Institutes of Health.
The Buffalo team certainly isn’t the first to think about 3D printing human organs. One of the more noteworthy projects is headed by Segway inventor Dean Kamen. He is working to establish a facility that can mass-produce artificial human organs once the technology’s safety is determined.
Although 3D printing human organs seems like something out of a sci-fi novel, experts believe that the idea has potential. In the U.S. alone, more than 107,000 people are waiting on a transplant list for a life-saving organ. Each day, 17 people die while waiting.
The problem isn’t that transplant operations can’t be performed. Instead, the lack of available organs means that many people simply can’t get the life-saving treatment they need.
Part of the problem is compatibility. Once an organ becomes available for transplant, there’s no guarantee that it will be a match for the next person on the list.
Making new organs with 3D printing would not only ensure there are enough organs for those who need them, but it also bypasses the problem of compatibility. Since each organ could be printed with cellular “ink” from the person who needs it, the organ would be 100 percent compatible with their body.
As innovations like the one highlighted by the team at Buffalo continue to emerge, the future of 3D printing human organs looks closer than ever.