3D Printed Human Organs: Making Future Transplant Wait Lists Shorter?

Over 120,000 people in the United States need a life-saving organ transplant. Every day, 22 of those people die, and every ten minutes another individual is added to the ever-growing list of those desperate for a transplant to survive.

Optimism can be found in odd places, though, and for those in databases like this one and others like it around the globe a glimmer of hope might soon be sprung from the same technology that brought the world a 3-D version of the Sad Keanu meme that made the rounds not too long ago.

The 3-D printer being used by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  Photo courtesy of WFIRM.

Since the time of the first successful organ transplant in 1954 when a kidney was gifted from one identical twin to his ailing brother at Brigham Hospital in Boston, the need for organs has continued to grow as advancements within the transplantation field expand and more people become candidates for organ and tissue transplant procedures.

Even with the first deceased-donor transplant in 1962 widening the availability of potential donors, supply just can’t keep up with the demand. That demand is illustrated at the Global Observatory of Donation and Transplantation’s website, which, according to 2014 statistics, lists approximately 120,000 transplants being performed world-wide yearly.

That number might seem impressive, but as Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) summed up during Fortune’s Brainstorm Health Conference in November of 2016, it needs to be much higher.

We now have a major health crisis in terms of the shortage of organs. That is because we are living longer, we’re aging better, and the longer we live the more your organs will fail. In a 10-year period, the actual people on the wait list has doubled waiting for a transplant or an organ. In the same time period, there has been less than a 1% increase in the number of transplants.” – Dr. Anthony Atala

An ear to the ground, and the future, of organ transplants in humans.  Photo courtesy of WFIRM.

INSH has previously reported on the complexities of something like a simultaneous kidney-pancreas transplant, however a study published in February 2016 outlines how Wake Forest scientists were able to use a specially designed integrated tissue-organ 3-D printer (ITOP) that created a biodegradable scaffold layered with live cells within a water-based gel to create an infant-sized human ear that was then transplanted successfully onto a mouse.

WFIRM’s Anthony Atala demonstrated the potential for 3D organ printing in 2011 at a Ted Talk.

The use of 3-D printing being applied to the construct of human tissue and organs isn’t exactly new; back in 2011, Atala demonstrated the potential for 3-D printing during a TED Talk as a human kidney was being created backstage.

A kidney being printed at the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine.  Photo courtesy WFIRM.

This ear-on-a-mouse breakthrough is providing researchers confidence for eventual successful 3-D printed organ transplantation for humans. Although the ear survived for only two months it managed to form its own cartilage and blood vessels thanks to printed micro-channels that allowed the distribution of vital oxygen and nutrients, something never before accomplished.

Image courtesy WFIRM.

The next big step facing researchers such as Atala and private companies like California-based Organovo and Russia’s 3D Bioprinting Solutions as this study’s findings are applied to vital organs such as the heart and lungs will be having to convince the United States Food and Drug Administration of the safety of 3-D printed organic material through a very slow and expensive approval process involving animal studies and successful clinical trials.

So turn that frown upside down, Sad Keanu. It might be years away but 3-D printed organs and tissue are offering hope for a future that promises better odds for those in need of a transplant.

Until that time finally comes, if you haven’t already and are interested in registering to be an organ donor check out the links below.

Want your country’s registry site listed? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out the International Registry in Organ Donation and Transplantation for more information on facts and figures.