The use of 3D printers to create everything from musical instruments to camera lenses is constantly growing. The technology continues to expand to include objects that no one ever thought possible.
But what about using it to create a replica of a human organ? The long and sometimes futile wait for available organs is an ongoing tragedy for many around the world hoping for transplants. Reports are common about people dying while languishing on waiting lists for hearts, lungs, or other organs, and there are endless campaigns to encourage people to sign up to become donors. However, what if we no longer needed other humans for donations? The number of people being saved could reach extraordinary levels.
Biolife4D is working on this exact goal. The company has recently claimed to have printed a mini human heart using 3D bioprinting technology. This heart, with its four major chambers, ventricles, valves, and other components of a real human heart, was created using bioink, which Biolife4D equates to having properties similar to gelatin. This ink was designed to replicate biomaterials found in the human heart.
As layer upon layer of the heart was printed, the company used a support scaffold to encase the heart and provide structural integrity. Once the organ was fully formed, or printed, it was placed into a bioreactor that is supposed to imitate the human body so that the cells would fuse themselves into actual tissue.
Although this mini heart was originally designed to provide a tool for researchers to use in cardiotoxicity testing (the study of how drugs and medications may damage heart muscles), Biolife4D’s goal is to one day create regular-sized, patient-specific, viable hearts for transplantation into humans. Using the patient’s own cells in its creation would also eliminate the challenges of organ rejection.
The Chicago-based biotech company expects the creation of a 3D printed heart that can actually prolong human life to take many years and much more research, and it is currently increasing production to meet this goal. The difficulty will lie with the need to possibly develop additional bioinks that would deliver multiple cell types to different regions of the 3D printed heart to allow it to function as a “real” one does. However, Biolife4D has high hopes that in the future, the wait for organ transplantation will be much shorter than it is today, thus increasing life expectancy rates for those needing this life-saving procedure.