Bioprinting — The Next Big Thing in Organ Transplants

Published on 29 Sep, 2016

Bioprinting Technology Intelligence

Made-to-order organs could be just round the corner.

Organ transplantation is one of medical science’s most complex fields.

Besides issues with compatibility, viability, and the narrow window of opportunity to work with, a general paucity of available organs is a huge problem for the healthcare industry. At least 22 patients die every day simply because they’re waiting for an organ transplant.

Recognizing the gravity of the problem, several researchers are looking at recent developments in 3D Printing technologies as a revolutionary solution to the age-old issue. There’s growing interest in new methods to produce complete functional living organs using 3D printing — colloquially referred to as Bioprinting.


What is Bioprinting?

Bioprinting is a 3D printing process to create natural human tissue and organs through layered deposition of cells, forming a mesh-like tissue structure.

Bioprinting organs involves using Bioink — a liquid suspension of living cells, nutrients, and other growth factors — loaded into cartridges (just like in a desktop printer) that feeds into specialized 3D printers. It can be used to “print” a desired shape (sometimes with the help of scaffold) that mimics native tissue in terms of structural organization functionality at the cellular level.


Developments in Bioprinting

The first patent in the field of bioprinting was filed in the United States in 2003 by Dr. Thomas Boland at Clemson University, and granted in 2006. Research in this space has come a long way since then.

While quite a few universities across the globe are working on Bioink, Swedish-based Biotech Company Cellink has the first-mover advantage. It was among the first bioprinting companies paving the way, commercializing Bioink in the field of 3D printing of human organs as well as the replacement of worn-out tissue.

While initial forays into this space were successful in developing solution-specific Bioinks, the challenge lay in creating a versatile Bioink, something that can be used interchangeably to create different kinds of tissue.

A research team led by Dr. Adam Perriman from the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine University of Bristol hopes to solve that problem. They’ve recently developed a 3D bioprinting method using stem cell Bioink, which could allow be used to print diverse types of living tissue,  everything from simple skin cells to complex tissues for surgical implants.

This could be a game-changer in the development of assistive bioscaffold technology (used to shore up freshly printed organs while they’re curing) as well as assist in the immediate restoration of damaged substrates.

Thin layers of 3D printed cartilage could also revolutionize the way we handle implants. Cartilage — which comprises of just one type of cell lines and no blood vessels — could be layered onto medical implants before they’re inserted, resulting in its easy integration into bone or soft tissue.


Bioprinting Applications

Bioprinting has the potential to revolutionize tissue engineering.

In its simplest forms, it’s already showing promise in areas such as skin grafting and tissue replacement. As the technology and techniques evolve, it’ll allow medical technicians to recreate large organs with complex functionality that are tailored to a specific patient’s needs.  Customized Bioink prepared using materials analogous to the patient’s characteristics, perhaps even derived from the patient’s own genetic profile, could reduce chances of their immune systems rejecting the transplanted tissue as well.

While it’s still a relatively new technology that’s still working out its kinks, there’s no denying it’s a viable solution to the ever-growing organ transplant waiting list.