3D Printed Organs Coming Soon

The burgeoning science of additive manufacturing is on the verge of being able to print functioning human organs.


The burgeoning science of additive manufacturing is on the verge of being able to print functioning human organs.

3D Printing News (“Major 3D Printed Organ Breakthrough: Vascular Networks Achieved“):

We have already seen 3D printing create several types of human tissue, most notably liver tissue which is currently being used in drug toxicity testing. With that said, there is still one major hurdle to get us from the tiny sheets of 3D printed organ tissue, to that of entire 3D printed organs, which could one day be created by a patient’s own stem cells, and transplanted to save their life. That hurdle is the vascularisation of those organs. Every cell within a human organ, such as the liver, kidney or heart are within a hair’s width of a blood supply. This is an incredibly complex setup, one which up until now, researchers have found to be a nightmare to overcome when dealing with bioprinting. Without an adequate vascular network, the cells would be starved of oxygen, as well as a means to excrete waste, causing them to die and making the printed organs worthless.

Scientists from the Universities of Sydney, Harvard, Stanford and MIT have been working together to overcome these mountainous hurdles. Today, the University of Sydney made a groundbreaking announcement. The team of scientists from all four universities have figured out a technique, making such vascularisation possible within the 3D bioprinting process.

To achieve this, the researchers used an extremely advanced bioprinter to fabricate tiny fibers, all interconnected, which would represent the complex vascular structure of an organ. They coated the fibers with human organs-3endothelial cells, and then covered it with a protein based material, rich in cells. The cell infused material was then hardened with the application of light. Once hardened the researchers carefully removed the coated fibers, leaving behind an intricate network of tiny spaces throughout the hardened cell material. The human endothelial cells were left behind, along the tiny spaces created by the fibers, which after a week self organized into stable capillaries.

“While recreating little parts of tissues in the lab is something that we have already been able to do, the possibility of printing three-dimensional tissues with functional blood capillaries in the blink of an eye is a game changer,” said study lead author and University of Sydney researcher, Dr Luiz Bertassoni. “Of course, simplified regenerative materials have long been available, but true regeneration of complex and functional organs is what doctors really want and patients really need, and this is the objective of our work.”

The discovery of this technique should hopefully quicken the pace of bio-printing research, and lead to a time, in the not too distant future, when we can meet the demand of the growing need for organs transplants. We are still likely several years from such a time, but progress is certainly being made quite rapidly.

The implications of this technology is pretty tremendous. An estimated 18 Americans die every day from the lack of available organs for transplant, with some 120,000 currently on a waiting list.  But only 597,166 transplants have occurred in the U.S. since 1988. My guess is that number would go up tremendously if the supply of matching organs became limitless and doctors therefore didn’t have to rely on a complicated triage system to consider people for transplant.

My understanding of additive manufacturing is very limited, even though I’ve been reading about it for a number of years now. It was a major subject of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, launched by Dr. Banning Garrett, but the focus even five years ago was on much less complex products—airplane parts and the like. If we get to the point where we’re able to easily manufacture something as complicated as a human liver, complete with a functioning vascular network, it would seem that there would be nothing we couldn’t print.

That gets us into “Star Trek” territory, potentially radically changing the global economy for the good. It also brings to mind several less happy scenarios from science fiction, with the “super-empowered individuals” Thomas Friedman started talking about years ago much more super.

FILED UNDER: Health, Science & Technology, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rafer Janders says:

    What?!?! 3D printed orga….oh, organs.

    Never mind, I misread….

  2. grumpy realist says:

    One of my friends is keeping VERY much on top of this….he’s got medical issues which make it far too easy for his body to shut down his kidneys. He’d love to have a few spares implanted.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    How soon can I get a new liver?

  4. jim m says:

    Years ago when I ran a stem cell therapy lab we speculated that this might one day be possible but our abilities in cell culture just weren’t there. Just a few years ago in another job we facilitated a tracheal transplant where they took a trachea from a cadaveric donor, removed the cellular material and used the remaining connective tissue matrix as a scaffold to grow the patient’s own cells over. The transplant was a success.

    3D technology can make this process, which took months to accomplish take a matter of days or weeks. I would expect to see tissue transplants like tracheas to be widely using this technology on an experimental basis within a couple of years. Whole organs will take years to get the technology right, but we are climbing the technology curve and what once seemed like a science fiction fantasy may become reality.

    I think about the recent advances in face transplants. What if we could essentially regrow a person’s face using their own cells? It’s not just major organs but we could make huge leaps in reconstructive surgery.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    I hope these breakthroughs make it to other organs. I thought the liver was special (“Isn’t it just special?”) in that I have a vague memory that it’s unlike other organs in that it can regrow?

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    A major hurdle not mentioned in the quoted portion of the article or the body of the post is gaining FDA approval. The same issues do not arise with fully natural transplanted organs.

    Consider the case of artificial hearts. The NIH began its project to develop a fully implantable permanent artificial heart more than 50 years ago. Over that period to the best of my knowledge only two (the SynCardia Temporary Artificial Heart and the Berlin heart) have received FDA approval and they are both viewed as temporary bridges to natural transplanted hearts. Over that period roughly 800 have been installed, nothing like the enormous demand pointed out in the body of the post.

    I think that a considerable amount of experience with these manufactured organic hearts will be required before they’re approved. I doubt that I’ll live to see it.

  7. Electroman says:

    @rudderpedals: Yes, the liver can regrow. Liver transplants can use a living donor, in which case the surgeons cut the donor liver in half, leaving half in the donor and transplanting the other half. Both livers are functional after this, whether they actually grow to their former size or not.


    That being said, I don’t think anything here is restricted to liver cells.

  8. rudderpedals says:

    @Electroman: Thank you

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Dave Schuler: But what if we’re using these as additions rather than replacements?

    Stick an extra kidney or two in there and see how it works while the “natural ones” are failing.

    I imagine given the amount of diabetes-induced kidney failure in the US that this one will be fast-tracked.

  10. @C. Clavin:

    “Is life worth living? That depends on the liver.”