Around 20 people in the United States die every day waiting for a replacement organ. There simply aren’t enough people donating organs to save all of these people, but this isn’t even the biggest problem. Donated organs only last so long before the recipient’s body starts rejecting them, and medication can only delay that process. Eventually, all donated organs have an expiration date.
The solution to this problem is to replace a patient’s organs with new organs made from the patient’s own cells. This way, the patient’s immune system won’t attack the replacement organs. Obviously, the biggest downside of this method is that doctors have to create these replacement organs from scratch, using technology that doesn’t really exist yet.
There are a few possibilities for what this future technology will look like, from genetic modification of existing organs to brand new organs grown in test tubes and petri dishes. But one of the more promising technologies is bioprinting: using 3D printing technology to build a new organ cell by cell.
This technology is still in its infancy, but a handful of companies are trying to bring organ printing into hospitals. One of those companies is BIOLIFE4D, which has taken the first step toward that goal by printing a patch of human cardiac tissue.
BIOLIFE4D is working toward their ultimate goal of printing a human heart using a patient’s own cells as the building blocks. The challenge here is not just that printing human tissue is hard, but that human hearts are very complex structures, with muscles, nerves, ventricles, valves, and blood vessels. The company not only has to build a bunch of cells in the shape of a heart but also has to make sure each cell is of the right type and functions properly.
While a two-dimensional patch of cardiac tissue is nowhere near a functional human heart, it does meet some of those conditions. The cardiac patch is fully functional human tissue with diverse cell types, and it can actually be implanted into the body to repair a patient’s malfunctioning heart.
BIOLIFE4D hopes that this type of cardiac patch could be used to treat victims of heart attacks and heart disease by replacing the affected heart tissue with brand new tissue. If they’re right, this tech could go a long way toward helping some of the millions of people who suffer from those conditions.
And while an effective treatment for cardiac patients sounds pretty good, BIOLIFE4D isn’t stopping until they make a full human heart. The next step for the company is to print a three-dimensional structure, and then achieve their next goal: a mini-heart, with the same structure and function of a full-sized one. From there, the company hopes to scale up their product and start implanting them in the people who need them.
Previously Published by: Popular Mechanics USA