You know how in those science documentaries there are always specimens preserved in jars? You remember how some of them had reptiles, tape-worms, etc.? Well I distinctly remember seeing a jar containing a preserved heart. In retrospect, it might have been a “ghost-heart,” a heart that has been stripped of all of its cardiac cells, leaving behind the collagen scaffold of the organ. Imagine doing the reverse. Creating a functional heart from a given scaffold. There have been efforts to do exactly such, and something that has aided this innovation in the field of transplant medicine is the 3D bio-printer.
There is a lot of research being done both by universities and companies to further develop bio-printing. The ultimate goal by many is to eliminate the need for an organ transplant list. In the future, physicians will be able to take cells from the patient and grow an organ for the patient, or if the patient has a congenital problem, take donor cells and grow an organ. Too far off in the future? Not as far off as you would initially think. Let’s take a look at Dr. Anthony Atala’s research. A link to his TED Talk can be found here: http://www.ted.com/talks/anthony_atala_printing_a_human_kidney. As Dr. Atala states in his TED Talk, the current field of regenerative medicine incorporates both biomaterials and living cells. He gives an example of engineering a bladder. A small piece of the patient’s bladder is used to feed a scaffold made of biomaterials, then the cells are cultured in environments which simulate human body conditions. A couple weeks later, the newly-grown kidney is ready for transplant! With recent developments, it gets much better. Dr. Atala’s group hacked an inkjet printer to spray cells rather than ink. The stage of the printer also contains a z-axis elevator which lowers every time the print head passes overhead. After the “print” is finished, the cellular structure can be popped out and prepared for use. The group is working towards taking this process one step further… printing directly on the patient.
Amidst all of this research in bio-printing, there has been a DIY movement aspect as well. A biohackerspace called BioCurious out of the Bay area of California posted an Instructable on how to build your own bio-printer from salvaged parts: http://www.instructables.com/id/DIY-BioPrinter/. From salvaged CD drives, an Arduino uno, H-bridge motor drivers, and inkjet cartridges, you too can make your own bio-printer at a reasonable cost of $150. Throw in another stage to control the z-axis, and then you have a 3D bio-printer. Obviously there are many other factors to consider, such as regulating the temperature and fiddling with the “ink,” but the fact that there is movement and interest in this area is encouraging. The field of regenerative medicine has benefitted and will continue to benefit from bio-printing, however, maybe the most benefit is derived from the fact that many people of all backgrounds are interested in the intersection of this technology and medicine, spurring future innovations to come.