3D printing of organs is a regular guest on almost every list of technologies influencing the healthcare of the future. At the same time, this technology seems almost old again, we have been talking about it for so long. Would we still call it a future technology? Without compromise, yes. 3D printing of organs has the potential to fundamentally change healthcare. The image of our body is changing. yesterday, medicine was working on restoring an original state given by God or nature, tomorrow the improvement and expansion of physical functionalities will become the central task. Here is a brief overview of the main players and their roadmap.
Probably the most important actor is Anthony Atala, surgeon, urologist and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During my most recent visit in spring 2018 I could not only hold a printed kidney in my hand, I could observe machines printing blood vessels, bones, livers, heart cells. His initiative to industrialize the processes for the production of any organs is even more promising. Only half of his total of 500 employees in the laboratory are physicians. At the same time, mechanical engineers, among other things, are working on reliably standardizing the processes in order to be able to offer them at many locations in this way.
The principle “3D printing of organs” is always the same and simple in logic: Whoever is able to grow organs from human stem cells can a) produce organs whenever he needs them and b) will prevent the organ from being rejected by the body. Risks are reduced and lifelong therapies are eliminated. The acute shortage of donor kidneys in particular is eliminated; the transport of transplants is no longer necessary. So far the consensus.
100% or more?
Among the researchers developing this technology, opinions differ at c): Will we also be able to improve the organs? Will my printed heart, my kidney, my liver be more efficient than the original one? And will my organs receive additional functions that were not yet provided for in the original configuration of my body? We see how the image of our body changes in the face of this possibility alone: The functional scope of the institutions, the coordination among each other – all this becomes a configuration. The body becomes a configurable machine. The only difference is whether the ideal is to restore the initial 100% as accurately as possible – or an individual and targeted deviation.
Dr Atala is the most important representative of those who rely on the 100% model. At the same time, he is the one whose laboratory is closest to formal approval by the FDA. His perspective: At the beginning of the 2020s, the first procedures for 3D printing of organs will be approved. First for rather simple structures, later step by step also more complex ones. Until the mid-2040s, it will be normal in many parts of the world to talk to your physician of trust about an exchange of almost any organ as a matter of course. In this way, he expects to be able to increase normal life expectancy to around 120 years.
Read about the work of 3D printing pioneer Gabor Forgacs in part 2.