Recent developments in medical science could tackle these issues with one example being additive manufacturing – commonly known as 3D printing – which may allow for bioprinting of organs! Through this process, an organ can be designed using a modelling software, and then printed with biomaterials such as polymers and hydrogels, in addition to the patient’s own cells. 3D-printed organs, if successfully produced, could tackle the big three obstacles in organ transplants: patient wait time, financial and emotional distress, and immunological failure. Currently, 3D bioprinting has a significant presence in customized implants, prosthetics, and working models for simulating the effect of drug treatments outside the human body. While the use of 3D printing to eliminate the crushing deficit of organ supply is ambitious, it could be a revolutionary change for the healthcare industry – extending people’s lives, as well as their productivity.
Experts in this field, however, have issued caution against keeping hopes too high. Jennifer Lewis, a bioengineer at Harvard University, is positive about the developments but suggests that the complicated architecture of organs such as livers and kidneys means bioprinting is unlikely to be plausible solution in the immediate future. Another expert in 3D bioprinting, Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for regenerative medicine, has a more positive outlook: he has successfully led a project to grow a human bladder using bioprinting and transplanted it to seven young patients suffering from spina bifida, a condition which can cause bladder problems. He has also set his eyes on bioprinting kidneys – one of the organs most commonly in demand. In a seminal TED talk in 2011, he displayed a kidney which had been printed on a machine earlier that day. But while the talk was a smashing success it also invited heavy criticism: the kidney was an artificial model and not functional, and he was accused of misleading the audience. According to Lewis, though the science is progressing in the right direction, it is still a long way from providing real assurances to patients in need.