3D printing has been all the rage in recent years with people with access to the technology printing anything from cameras to musical instruments to life size castles. But the most useful applications of 3D printers are in medicine. Medical researchers have been printing devices like implants as well has body tisse and parts.
Scientists from Harvard University have invented a method of bioprinting complex kidney tissue that consist of human stem cells, extracellular matrix that supports cells and circulatory channels lines with endothelial blood vessels. Unlike earlier 3D printing experiments, this is not only a structural creation but could also potentially be a functional organ.
The team from the Harvard’s school of engineering and applied sciences is now printing functional kidney proximal tubules. This is no easy task give the miniscule size of these kidney parts. A normal human kidney has more than a million nephrons within which these tubules reside. The 3D-printed tubules are being tested for their functionality in the lab. They might be used in the future to test potential drugs, given that about 20% of drugs fail late-stage human tests because they are toxic. The tubules could be used to develop an external device to aid kidney dialysis or eventually be implanted in patients suffering kidney disease or even create whole artificial kidneys.
Researchers associated with the experiment say that this development, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, can bring researchers one step closer to building structures for tissue repair and regeneration, which will have huge implications for medical treatments. Here is a video explaining how they used a customisable silicone mould and created a vascular network within it.
For about the last five years there have been all sorts of experiments with printing human organs but most of these focused on creating structural replacements, like printing ears or less complex tissues like bladders.
Printing functional organs can cut organ transplant queues drastically and, maybe some day, even entirely. Right now, a breakthrough that can alleviate kidney failure can help 10% of the world’s population to spend time and money on physically exhausting dialysis to stay alive.