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As scientists continue to observe a global shortage in donor organs, an exciting and previously unfathomable bioengineering process has risen as a potential solution: organ printing, or the construction of transplantable organs via a 3D bioprinter.

To those unfamiliar with this concept, “organ printing” may evoke images of hearts and lungs emerging from an HP inkjet printer. In reality, this technology makes it possible to render a cellular template on screen and “print it out,” creating an artificial alternative capable of mimicking its natural counterpart.

 

Developments in organ printing

Early bioprinter technology enabled scientists to scan a wound, determining the exact layers of cells needed to fill this area and ultimately heal it. At the time, the concept of full organ printing was considered a “sophisticated” extension of this concept that sat on the horizon. Now, however, organ creation is becoming fully recognized as a present-day possibility.

Specifically, 2017 saw many developments in organ printing technology. The process has generally remained the same in theory: scientists take active cells and pattern them “to thin layers of matrix fibers,” a technological concept called DNA-programmed assembly of cells (DPAC). The DPAC results in a detailed template in which cellular collaboration generates tissues in a manner fascinatingly similar to natural development.

 

Future implications of organ printing

Many major institutions, including Boston University and the University of Toronto, have reported progress in utilizing printing technology to create human heart tissue, among other crucial cellular materials. These breakthroughs have resulted in the production of over 100 3D printing units on the market, and this notion has subsequently spurred the FDA into issuing technical guidance for the manufacturing and distribution of printing devices, essentially laying foundation for 3D printing to become a normalized and accepted part of regenerative medicine.

This news is promising for those currently on organ transplant waiting lists — a sometimes astounding number of individuals. In the UK alone, for example, those hoping for a kidney transplant can expect to wait an average of 944 days for a successful donation. Furthermore, a lack of transplants is projected to be the leading cause of death in America. These figures are grim, but as 3D bioprinting continues to be honed by biotechnology’s leading minds, the future remains bright.