One of the reasons why I really enjoy writing about 3D printing is because it is a fabulous mix of the fun and the important. The stories we cover can be anything from the enjoyable experience of standing before a giant 3D printed skeleton to the very serious nature of fabricating necessary objects on a 3D printer onboard the International Space Station. The work done by these machines and the people that operate them has, time and again, proven to offer a helping hand (sometimes literally as in the case of prosthetics) to boosting the quality of life of a growing number of individuals.
From left to right: Lester Smith, PhD, Burcin Ekser, MD, PhD and Ping Li, PhD [Image:Eric Schoch, IUSM]
One area in which 3D printing is making particularly important contributions is in the field of medicine. Over the past several years, we have seen stories about students getting hands-on experience through 3D printed models and of improved patient outcomes as a result of preparation and the fabrication of custom surgical equipment for the medical team. With the introduction of bioprinting, the ultimate dream in medicine has been to advance to the point of being able to 3D print whole organs that could be used to replace those that are failing in patients. Thus far, that is still a dream for the future, but important advances are being made in that direction, sometimes great strides, other times only baby steps.
One of the most recent steps forward has come in the form of an agreement between faculty at Indiana University (IU) School of Medicine and the Maryland-based company Lung Biotechnology PBC, that is focused on organ transplantation technologies. The hope is that the $9 million project will result in the knowledge necessary to make the dream of 3D printing organs into a reality. They won’t be starting from scratch; the IU team is already able to generate tissues, but they will use the funding provided through this partnership to analyze the tissues and their structures in order to possibly unlock the key to more advanced organ creation. Dr. Lester Smith, an Assistant Professor of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at IU School of Medicine and the head of the research team, explained the prolonged nature of any such investigation:
“[I]f someone has a skin burn, maybe we can replace skin. Or if someone has a bad liver then we can replace the liver entirely. But this is way down the road. Most of our tissues which make up our organs have a lot of different cell types. They are also vascularized, which means they have a lot of blood vessels that are basically channeling through them. When we get there that’s when I can tell you how long it took. That’s because the body is so complex and there’re so many different parts and so many responses. I couldn’t tell you how long it would take but we’re on the road to that destination.”
Luckily, Indiana University and Lung Biotechnology don’t have to make all the headway by themselves; there are a large number of organizations, from large to small and public to private, pursuing the dream of fabricating organs. This is more than just an effort to do something to see if it can be done; there are people dying every year because they cannot get access to the organs that they need, and further deaths and astronomical medical expenses to deal with for those whose bodies strongly reject the foreign organs. Should it become possible to create a custom organ for someone using their own cells, the entire process from the surgery to simple day to day functionality would be vastly improved, and this partnership should help push that research closer to the gold standard.
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[Source: Indiana Public Media]