Menu Menu

3D Bioprinting to save millions worldwide?

Successful pre-trials have accelerated the possibility for the mass commercialisation of 3D bioprinting and tissue cultivation, and its introduction could save thousands of lives a year.

Last month we included Biotechnology in our listicle for futuristic technologies of the next decade (here), but it appears the introduction of 3D bioprinting may arrive a whole lot earlier than expected.

For those unfamiliar with Biotechnology, it primarily involves Bioprinting: the development of fully functioning artificial organs, and the cultivation of human tissue in laboratory conditions; two processes that once perfected, could usher in a new dawn for regenerative and cardiothoracic surgeries.

Several medical professionals initially expressed concern over the ‘human accommodation’ of artificial organs, asserting that it’s arduous enough getting a body to accept another human heart without inciting a defensive response from the immune system, let alone entirely foreign objects.

But despite the reservations, red tape barring the way to government authorisation is constantly being frayed by the resounding successes of numerous trials in recent weeks.

This month a team of researchers from a diaspora of US Universities collaborated with esteemed bioengineers Jordan Miller and Kelly Stevens – and design firm Nervous System – to perfect a model air sack that mimicked the function of human lungs, delivering oxygen to surrounding blood vessels, creating vascular networks identical to our internal passageways.

A research team pioneered by Zhengchu Tan at the Imperial College London have advanced their techniques for the cryogenic printing of ‘super soft hydrogels’. It sounds awful fancy, but a super soft hydrogel is essentially a material which bears the same ‘soft’ consistency as organs, like the brain or lung.

Tan found that the cryogenic (deep) freezing process enabled tissue to be printed layer-by-layer into intricate three-dimensional shapes, meaning we could feasibly patch small faulty areas of human organs with brand new material. These print ons would act as a ‘scaffold’ onto which healthy cells would be encouraged to grow.

As with every new innovation there are inevitable challenges and concerns of course. Organs are not just made up of one type of cell. The complexity of not only functional tissue, but too the venous and arterial structures would need to be fully intact for a successful implant. Even if the perfect physical structure is created, the right cells still have to grow in the right places, to serve the right function.

There’s also funding implications that need to be met. While today’s commercial 3D printers cost around £2000, a printer able to create cell-laden biological constructs is around £200,000 meaning serious funding would be required to make the technology readily available to medical practitioners around the globe.

It has to be said though, that in this case, the potential reward far outweighs the risk. Every year over 8000 people die waiting for transplants and human organ donors are at record lows. But if this technology fully comes to fruition, it will largely eradicate the chief issue: patient individuality.

The specificity and customisability that 3D technologies provide would allow us to tailor treatments, implants, and also prosthetics to every patient’s full requirements instead of treating people formulaically.

These strides in Biotechnology, coupled with Elon Musk’s progress with Neuralink are making it look increasingly likely that a debilitating litany of both physical and neurological conditions will be eradicated entirely from the planet. And we could all be here to witness the transformation.