Imagine print-on-demand human organs manufactured by a three dimensional bio-printer that works like an inkjet printer, except that it uses human cells instead of ink.
That used to be science fiction. But it has already happened. Dr. Anthony Atala is director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, where he and his team are developing more than 30 engineered tissues and whole organs. In an amazing Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) presentation, Atala displayed a manufactured kidney that came from 3-D printer. It wasn’t a fully functioning kidney ready for implant, he explained, but it showed future potential for real working organs.
Already, scientists have engineered functioning skin, muscle, bladders and short stretches of blood vessels. Atala was joined onstage by his former patient, Luke Masella, who was born with spina bifida and had a paralyzed bladder. At age 10, when his kidneys were failing, Atala implanted an engineered bladder "grown” with Masella’s own cells. Conventional treatment would have been to create a bladder from a portion of Luke’s intestines, which would have risked other serious health problems. Masella, now a healthy-looking 20-year old college student and former highs school athlete, says the engineered organ has given him a normal life.
A National Geographic story by Josie Glausuisz reports 30 people have already received lab-grown bladders.
The tissue-engineering pioneer Atala takes a tiny sample—the size of half a postage stamp—from the patient’s bladder, teases the cells apart, and applies internal and external cells to the inside and outside of biodegradable bladder-shaped scaffold. Atala explains it’s rather like making a layer cake—building layers of appropriate cells in the right order. The structure is kept warm, cells multiply, and six to eight weeks later the bladder is ready for implant. In another captivating TED talk, Atala describes scientific progress in creating solid organs, such as hearts, livers and kidneys. A diseased or discarded organ can be "washed” to remove all its cells, leaving only a shell. Healthy cells and a whole blood cell tree are then infused into the empty shell. Atala and his team have found that cells can be collected from diseased and healthy organs and from fat, and that stem cells, which can be coaxed to produce different organs, can be obtained from amniotic fluid without harming an embryo or fetus.
The supply of donated organs is far exceded by the number of people waiting for a transplant, Atala says, and 90 per cent of those waiting need kidneys. It’s one of our biggest health crises.
The 3-D bioprinter, developed by Organovo, which costs about $200,000, is designed to build human organs cell by cell. Atala and his team are working on a breakthrough that would "scan” the contours of a body part—say where a skin graft were needed—then "print” skin right onto the area. Eventually, scientists predict, the cell-by-cell printing process will be able to produce working solid organs—hearts, livers and kidneys—and the architecture for a blood flow to support them.