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The first 3D printed organ -- a liver -- is expected in 2014

Lucas Mearian | Jan. 2, 2014
Printed tissue could vastly improve drug testing.

"It is too early to speculate on the breadth of applications that tissue engineering will ultimately deliver or on the efficacy that will be achieved," Renard said.

That question, Renard said, can only be answered through continued successful tissue development and the completion of clinical trials, followed by a review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — a process that can take three to 10 years.

To spur on the development of bio-printed organs, the Methuselah Foundation, a Springfield, Va.-based not-for-profit that supports regenerative medicine research, this month announced a $1 million prize for the first organization to print a fully functioning liver.

Currently, there are about 120,000 people on the organ waiting list in the U.S., and even those who receive a donated organ face the prospect of ongoing medical challenges because of organ rejection issues. However, if a patient's own stem cells could be used to regenerate a living organ, rejection would become moot.

Research into whole organ regeneration currently receives less than $500 million in funding a year in the U.S., compared to $5 billion for cancer research and $2.8 billion for HIV and AIDS, the Methuselah Foundation said in its contest announcement. "Regenerative medicine is the future of healthcare, but right now the field is falling through the cracks," said Methuselah CEO David Gobel.

Organs on a chip
While it may be a decade or more before human trials for organ transplants are approved by the FDA, the creation of organ tissue still holds the prospect of revolutionizing medicine.

Printing out sustainable organ tissue could allow pharmaceutical companies to develop and test drugs on human and not animal organs. Using human tissue yields more accurate results.

Researchers are now experimenting with laying down a thin layer of human tissue from any number of organs for pharmaceutical development. The process is known as creating an "organ on a chip" or a "human on a chip."

Scientists have for years been able manually grow thin skin tissue for temporary skin grafts that act as a type of bandage while the body heals itself. However, 3D printing has advanced that process.

Instead of the arduous task of manually laying down cells, 3D printing automates the process in an exact and repeatable way using a syringe on the end of a robotic mechanism guided by computer-aided design (CAD) software.

"Using 3D printing has given us the reproducibility and the automation needed to scale up," said Jordan Miller, assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University. Miller recently helped open a microfabrication lab at Rice University after spending years in a similar lab at the University of Pennsylvania's department of bioengineering.


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