February 02, 2017

Printed human body parts become available for transplantation

By Maximilian Wirth
As the Economist notes, 120,000 organs –  mostly kidneys – are transplanted each year around the world. Sometimes the organs come from living donors. More often, though, they come from individuals who passed away in an accident. This supply is limited however, and many patients die waiting for transplants.

Fortunately, printed organs are about to become available. “Bioprinting” sprays living cells into patterns without damaging them. Thereby organic tissues are created, which could then get transplanted into human beings.

With that technology, researchers at Northwestern University have already printed functioning organs for mice. Organovo, a biotech company, even estimates that within the next 3 to 5 years printed human liver tissues could be used as a treatment for people with chronic liver failure. Companies all around the world have formed alliances to develop printable implants ranging from treatment for broken bones to kidney problems and to replace even complex organs like the heart in the more distant future.

Cosmetic and medical companies are especially interested in the potential for skin treatment. On the one hand, skin could be printed directly on the body – repairing burns and ulcers. On the other, products could be tested immediately on printed human skin. L’Oreal already grows five square meters a year with an older method, but with the new technological processes, much more and even different skin types could be printed in the near future. 

Bioprinting should also please animal-rights activists. The possibility of printing body parts could drastically cut down the number of animal trials for drug testing – a real win-win situation. Humans won’t depend anymore on the altruism or unfortunate death of another person to receive a transplant and animals won’t suffer anymore in testing laboratories.