This may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but scientists are currently working on 3D printing techniques that will allow us to create entirely new organs from the cells of patients. We're still at least 20 years away from being able to print a new liver or heart, but the work towards creating smaller organs is well underway.
Surgeons are currently using 3D printers to prepare for surgery by taking a CAT scan or MRI of the impacted area and then printing out the organ in plastic to assist in figuring out where to actually cut to get to the areas in need of help. In addition, many doctors have used 3D printers for plastic reconstruction of bone, cartilage and tendons. These are all traditional uses of the technology and while it does help patients, the future looks much more intriguing.
Called "bioprinting," the technology is attempting to print actual human organs from the fat cells of a patient. The process uses either traditional extrusion type 3D printer or, more commonly, modified inkjet printers that hold the cells in a suspended gel and print in three dimensions. While we won't pretend to understand all of the nuances of the technology, the panel from TeVido BioDevices sounded very excited about the progress they've been making.
The biggest challenge facing doctors is getting the body to connect the printed organ to the vascular system so that blood can keep it alive. This requires printing microvascular channels within the organ so that the body can automatically connect its capillaries. Since the human body creates new capillaries when needed (such as while exercising), the process isn't quite as difficult as it might sound, although it's hardly trivial.
As mentioned earlier, it's going to take biologists awhile to get to printing new human hearts, so for now, they're focusing on a smaller organ: the nipple areola complex (NAC). Millions of women are forced to have a mastectomy due to breast cancer, so printing a new NAC after reconstructive surgery will be able to replace the current process of creating a fake NAC and coloring it via tattoo. And since it's created using cells from the patient, there will be no need for anti-rejection medication: The body will see it as its own organ. Connecting nerve endings to the new nipple will be something doctors will look at in the future.
The process is still relatively slow. Although the actual printing takes only a minute, the preparation takes nearly a day. Traditional CAD companies are assisting with this problem: For example, AutoDesk is currently working on a CAD program for organs.
While we're still in the infancy of this technology, the potential for the future is exciting.