THE great hope of transplant surgeons is that they will, one day, be able to order replacement body parts on demand. At the moment, a patient may wait months, sometimes years, for an organ from a suitable donor. During that time his condition may worsen. He may even die. The ability to make organs as they are needed would not only relieve suffering but also save lives. And that possibility may be closer with the arrival of the first commercial 3D bio-printer for manufacturing human tissue and organs.
The new machine, which costs around $200,000, has been developed by Organovo, a company in San Diego that specialises in regenerative medicine, and Invetech, an engineering and automation firm in Melbourne, Australia. One of Organovo’s founders, Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri, developed the prototype on which the new 3D bio-printer is based. The first production models will soon be delivered to research groups which, like Dr Forgacs’s, are studying ways to produce tissue and organs for repair and replacement. At present much of this work is done by hand or by adapting existing instruments and devices.
To start with, only simple tissues, such as skin, muscle and short stretches of blood vessels, will be made, says Keith Murphy, Organovo’s chief executive, and these will be for research purposes. Mr Murphy says, however, that the company expects that within five years, once clinical trials are complete, the printers will produce blood vessels for use as grafts in bypass surgery. With more research it should be possible to produce bigger, more complex body parts. Because the machines have the ability to make branched tubes, the technology could, for example, be used to create the networks of blood vessels needed to sustain larger printed organs, like kidneys, livers and hearts.