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article imageEssential Science: When will we get 3D organs on demand?

By Tim Sandle     Aug 31, 2020 in Science
Given various biomedical advances, what is the likelihood of 3D printed organs? What has been achieved so far? And where is future research heading? Digital Journal takes the litmus test.
3D printing technology may one day enable medics to produce artificial organs for many patients in need ‘on-demand’. Technology is a long way from making this a reality; however, there have been a number of impressive technological advances reported recently. In this Essential Science column Digital Journal provides an update of current progress and the primary challenges facing the biomedical community.
Organ donations in China are limited as many of its 1.37 billion people believe they will be reincar...
Organ donations in China are limited as many of its 1.37 billion people believe they will be reincarnated after death and so feel the need to keep a complete body
Brendan Smialowski, AFP/File
3D bioprinting
Essential to producing a full-formed organ is bioprinting, or more accurately, 3D bioprinting. This is is a form of additive manufacturing that uses cells and other biocompatible (bioinks) to print living structures layer-by-layer which mimic the behavior of natural living systems.
This is all fine for the research lab, but how can a working organ be produced? The approach involves the utilization of 3D printing technologies in order to assemble multiple cell types together with other biomaterials in a layer-by-layer fashion. This allows scientists to develop bioartificial organs that imitate their natural counterparts.
Photo of a 3D printer.
Photo of a 3D printer.
Gui le chat (CC BY-SA 4.0)
While this has been successful under laboratory conditions, when will organs printed on demand appear?
What is the goal?
In terms of why bother? Imagine being able to print body parts and organs when needed as so to save a person's life. This would overcome the shortages and risks the surround organ transplantation. The goal is to harvest stem cells from a transplant recipient and then print the cells into a replacement organ. This might do away with the the complications associated with organ transplant (like organ rejection, triggered by the body's immune system) or address the concerns abound with waiting for a suitable donor.
Why is research taking so long?
While 3D organ printing has been discussed for a number of years, why is progress relatively so? Currently it is possible to fabricate human-scale organs that have the potential to mature into partially-functional tissues. However, these are not yet of the design that can be transplanted in to a host and proceed to work effectively.
A worker examines ballots which will be use in early presidential election during the printing proce...
A worker examines ballots which will be use in early presidential election during the printing process in Kiev, on May 14, 2014
Sergei Supinsky, AFP
There are several complications, as this article outlines. In doing so, it is important to acknowledge recent success in bioink development, implementation of new bioprinting and tissue maturation strategies. Yet there are other things to consider.
Tissue culture techniques
One limiting factor is with tissue culture techniques. To advance more fully, these require accelerating in order to address the bottleneck of maturing bioprinted multi-cellular 3D tissue constructs into functional tissues.
Scaffolding
The structure of organs is important and to develop a strong structure, organs need to be grown of scaffolds. In this context, an organ's 3D architecture provides the biological, structural and mechanical support needed by cells in order to influences how they grow and respond to external stimuli.
A heart attack happens when a blood clot blocks coronary arteries  killing cardiac muscle.
A heart attack happens when a blood clot blocks coronary arteries, killing cardiac muscle.
Ravindra gandhi (gandhiji40)/Flickr.com
The use of scaffolding is essential to 3D organ building and, in the context of the development of organs, oddly this is invariably the mot challenging aspect. Many tissue engineering researchers pin their expectations upon water-based gels called hydrogels. Such materials seem to function well as scaffolds to support cells within three-dimensional artificial organs.
Hydrogels are networks of crosslinked polymer chains that are hydrophilic, sometimes found as a colloidal gel in which water is the dispersion medium.
In order to help support organs, hydrogels support diffusion of necessary soluble compounds; however, oxygen, nutrients and wastes, enabling organs to survive through the supply of appropriate nutrients. An alternative approaches is to use collagen. There has been some success with producing 3D bioprint tissue scaffolds from collagen. Collagen is the major structural protein in the human body.
Improved bioink
A further limitation on organ development relates to the bioink needed to support a more efficient and inexpensive fabrication of human tissues and organs. The answer also lies with hydrogels, and scientist are examining the physical and biological properties of three different hydrogels, such as those derived from porcine skin, cold-water fish skin and cold-soluble gelatin.
Surgery
File photo: A surgical team from Wilford Hall Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, performs ear surgery.
Photo by John Asselin, U.S. Air Force
A different research area is with developing customized silicone-based inks that can be "tuned" to precisely match the mechanical properties of each organ.
Transparent organs: Prelude to 3D?
In related research into human organs, biomedical scientists, from Helmholtz Zentrum München, have succeeded in manufacturing intact human organs that are transparent. The advantage of this is that through the use of microscopic imaging it is possible to unveil the complex structures that form organs and to visualize these at the cellular level.
At Fraunhofer IGB: Synthesied artificial blood vessels generated through 3D printing technology and ...
At Fraunhofer IGB: Synthesied artificial blood vessels generated through 3D printing technology and new processes and materials could help organ transplant patients.
Jan Kerckhoff/Fraunhofer Institute/igb.fraunhofer.de
By producing detailed maps of body organ maps the German researchers can use this to further advance 3D-bioprinting methods. This approach has been outlined in the journal Cell, in research titled "Cellular and Molecular Probing of Intact Human Organs."
Essential Science
This article forms part of Digital Journal’s long-running Essential Science series. Each week we present a new science finding, covering a diverse range of subjects.
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The universal smile symbol, which became associated with 1990s rave culture. On show at the Design Museum, London.
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More about Organs, 3d, 3D printing, biopr, Medical
 
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