3D Printed Organs Might Just Change the Face of Medicine

It seems like 2013 is the year of the 3D printer with everything from incredible works of art to an actual firing gun (scary as it may be) making headlines. Now it’s human organs – take a moment to wrap your head around that.

In labs around the world, bioengineers are now starting to print prototype body parts of everything from artificial bone, joints, to skin grafts, and heart valves. It’s a rapidly developing industry that is garnering more research and investment every year. Between 2008 and 2011 the number of scientific papers on the subject tripled and Organovo, a company that makes makes functional human tissues using three-dimensional bioprinting technology raised $24.7 million in equity. While printing out a whole, fully functioning organ isn’t happening just yet, Vivian Gorgen, a 25-year-old systems engineer believes it will happen soon. “Getting to a whole organ-in-a-box that’s plug-and-play and ready to go, I believe that could happen in my lifetime,” said Gorgen.


Medical science first began scratching the surface of bioprinting back in 2000 after reconfiguring a Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 550C to print with E. coli bacteria. Next, came experiments such as working with cartilage. Scientists were able to print a meniscus, the C-shaped piece of cartilage that cushions the knee and other joints. The problem was that upon closer inspection by knee-replacement surgeons, it was deemed to not up to par with the body’s routine abuse on joints.

Our bodies and organs are incredibly complex, with many organs doing an array of different functions. Naturally, they wear out over time, so the challenge is finding a way to print part of or a full organ that can withstand the wear and tear – something that’s easier said than done.


Gabor Forgacs, Organovo’s co-founder and a biological physicist at the University of Missouri says that when most people think about bioprinting they think of the finished printed product, but really it’s what happens afterwards. By arranging cells in the right way they’ll start to form an organ embryo. A grant from the National Science Foundation allowed Forgacs and his team to bioprint using different cell types that would fuse without any human intervention or environmental cues. “The cells know what to do because they’ve been doing this for millions of years. They learned the rules of the game during evolution,” said Forgacs.

If all of this is sounding eerily similar to Luke Skywalker having his hand rebuilt or a plethora of other sci-fi movie scenes that’s in part because Organovo draws some inspiration from the genre. Ten of the company’s bioprinters have even been named after characters from the 1997 Bruce Willis movie The Fifth Element. That flick with Mila Jovovich in the barely-there white body suit, remember? Now in the movie a robot uses cells from a severed human hand to print and reanimate an entire woman, and while we’re a a long, long, long way off from that (it is set in the 23rd century after all) visualizing tools that that could model the process is a step we’re moving towards. Even if it’s just one piece of liver tissue at a time.

Read more about bioprinting at Popsci

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