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Bioprinting: The 3D Future of Organ Transplants?

Today’s 3D printers, which can produce complex physical objects such as jewelry and airplane parts, are being used to print something even more intricate: human organs.

3D printers work much like inkjet printers. Instead of ink, the machines deposit successive layers of different materials, including silver, plastic, and titanium to form an actual object.

In late 2009, a startup called Organovo developed a bioprinter, which uses human cells to print functional human tissue. The end goal is to print human organs that can be used in transplants, says Chief Executive Officer Keith Murphy.

“There are a series of things that will get us closer and closer to the end goal of human organs,” says Murphy, who will speak in San Francisco on Tuesday at a conference hosted by the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine. “The biggest next step is vascularization—creating blood vessels within larger tissues.” Without these blood vessels, the tissue would die, Murphy says.

As people live longer and organ failures increase in number, regenerative medicine is becoming increasingly important.

“In the last 10 years, the number of patients requiring organs has doubled, while at the same time the number of transplants has barely gone up,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, speaking at the March 2011 TED conference. “It’s now a public health crisis.”

Atala, who is director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, demonstrated the printing of an early prototype kidney at the event. The printed kidneys are not yet ready to be transplanted into humans.

As researchers work on addressing these challenges, Organovo’s Murphy is helping pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer (PFE) print human tissue to better test the effectiveness of drugs and their potential side effects. The idea is to give drug companies improved data about how a pharmaceutical product will affect human tissue such as the liver before expensive clinical trials start.

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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