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3D Printing: Getting Organ-ized

Organ printing visualisation. Source: http://www.newscientist.com

‘Two Kidneys, A Heart, And An Earlobe To Go, Please.’

A phrase that may become commonplace in the near future. Perhaps not in these exact words – it’s not fast food – but it’s satisfying all the same.

You may have heard of 3D printing, but have you heard of organ printing? Organ printing is the making of replicas of fully-functional, living organs, all from scratch.

The principle is simple and brilliant: cells suspended in a liquid are passed through a printer-like device, which first lays out a template called ‘bio-paper’, then injects it with clusters of cells called ‘bio-ink’, and presto, we have a cell print. The process is repeated over and over again, creating numerous layers of cell prints until a proper, three-dimensional organ is created. Think of it like clay pottery with living tissue and a cooler name.

The process belongs to the field of regenerative medicine. This new branch of medicine deals with the restoration of damaged or faulty tissues and organs, which are regenerated from an individual’s cell samples, eliminating the chances of transplant rejection, while making their availability practically limitless.

In the future we may not need to wait years for scarce transplant organs. We’ll be able to grow our own spare parts. Some have even floated the idea that we may use this technology to replace our organs at given intervals, circumventing the aging process to increase quality of life, all without the use of disposable clones. Why make another version of ourselves, who will likely have a will of his/her own, rights, etc, when we can make parts of us, to use as and when we please?

In the TEDtalk below, surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrates an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney.