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Anthony Atala growing a kidney at his TED talk in March 2011

3D printing is revolutionising manufacturing, putting us in the designer’s chair. But where it could be used for the greatest good is in the healthcare sector. The technology has been around for the best part of 25 years, but now 3D printing could change organ donation and prosthetic limb production forever. The technology is being successfully developed to produce 3D printed prosthetics from human cells. Imagine that? Spare limbs and organs printed at the touch of a button.

How does it work?

Implants have already been built with 3D printers that cannot be manufactured in a traditional manner, by using a semi-porous structure that avoids the risk of the body rejecting the implant. What’s more, doctor Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Chair and Professor of Urology, and surgeon, is already successfully developing the technology to print bladders, kidneys, and heart valves from human cells.

Atala has already showcased an artificial heart valve that beats, as well as an engineered human bladder that was generated using a scaffold sutured together to match a 3D image of the organ. The scaffold was then smeared with a patient’s cells and put in an oven to incubate at physiological conditions generating a new bladder. On top of this, Atala has the goal of using 3D printing to design a scanner that could create a relief-like map of the wound of a patient. The idea is the printing could be done directly on to the affected area, building up layers of regenerated tissue that would heal the wound.

The printing has begun – bladder and kidney

But with 90% of donors on the waiting list in America in desperate need of a kidney, Atala’s main focus is developing a 3D printed kidney that could be used for a patient – and he believes he is already half-way there.

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By reconstructing the entire volume of a kidney using computer tomography, a CT scan – a type of digital geometry processing used to generate a three dimensional image of the inside of an object from a large series of two-dimensional X-ray images taken around a single axis of rotation – with the information then processed to create scans of single layers of cells. From this Atala can use the scans as a blueprint for cells to be printed in layers to generate an actual human kidney specific to a patient.

At Atala’s TED debut talk in March 2011 he wowed an audience by showcasing a 3D printed kidney – a bioengineered creation that looked the colour of a chicken breast but was made out of real human cells. Now this wasn’t a fully functioning kidney, with media reports at the time wide of mark – while he hasn’t yet developed a working kidney, the technology is developing quickly.

The future for regenerative medicine

Only this week San Diego based BioTech company Organovo received  $3.5 million in venture capital funding for bio-printing process NovoGen – with the hope that in the near future three-dimensional body parts will be able to be produced. Developed in partnership  with Invetech, the Novogen MMX is set to be the world’s first commercially available bioprinter. It works by having two high precision printing heads, one for human cells, and another for a supporting matrix like a scaffold. Although this could be another 25 year wait before fully functional organs such as a liver or bladder are produced – the NovoGen MMX has already produced 3D printed blood vessels.

Fred David, President of Invetech is excited by the future possibilities: “Building human organs cell-by-cell was considered science fiction not that long ago. Through this clever combination of technology and science we have helped Organovo develop an instrument that will improve people’s lives, making the regenerative medicine that Organovo provides accessible to people around the world.”

While 3D printing is beginning to make its mark across the healthcare sector, it is possible that during our lifetime the donor waiting list could be a thing of the past – soon, you may simply put your application in for what organ you need, and voilà, there it is at the push of the button. But before we get ahead of ourselves, modern medicine is not close to successfully donating or even testing a 3D printed organ on a patient – but the hope is 3D printed organs will be the breakthrough technology of a generation, changing modern medicine forever.

[via Humans Invent]

Read more: Kidney please! 3D printed prosthetics

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