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3D Printed Organs: The Future of Organ Transplants

Saudi Arabia's investment into this exciting technology is driving bioprinting innovation across its medical research universities, but what is it?

2 JUNE 2021

Since materials science is transforming the future, 3D printing human organs and tissues will soon become a regular part of a surgeon's tool bag. Since the 1980s, 3D printing has created homes, car parts, toys, and much more - so why not 3D printed organs?

Standard 3D printing already produces exceptionally complex shapes. It makes sense to utilise this technology to bioprint organs from the patient's cells. Using this method would minimise organ rejection, a constant battle with current human-to-human organ donation ​methods. Without possible organ rejection, bioprinted organ patients could heal far more quickly, because they do not need drugs to keep their immune system from attacking the transplant.

3D bioprinting can produce living tissue, bone, blood vessels, and eventually, whole organs for use in medical procedures, training, and testing.

At the World Stemcell Summit in early 2019, Dr Anthony Atala, a world-renowned bioprinting expert, told reporters: "We continue to develop replacement tissues and organs, and are also working to speed up the availability of these treatments to patients. The ultimate goal is to create tissues for patients… We have been doing this for quite some time with patients, and 16 years ago we realised that we needed to scale up the technology and automate it to work with thousands of patients at a time, so we started thinking about 3D printers, and began using the typical desktop inkjet printer, which was modified in-house to print cells into a 3D shape."

3D printed organs would slash the time that organ recipients would have to wait for a transplant, saving many lives. It currently takes between four and six weeks to build a healthy organ for a patient, compared to months or years of waiting for suitable organ donations.

Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East's fastest-growing tech hubs, is making substantial investments into bioprinting across its scientific and medical universities, driving innovation in this essential field of medicine. The internet is awash with Saudi-based bioprinting research, and technical improvements to bioprinting techniques made by Saudi students, including the optimisation of a 3D bioprinting process using ultrashort peptide bioinks.

How does organ printing work?

There are numerous different bioprinting methods, including acoustic bioprinting, inkjet, and laser technologies, but all techniques follow the same step-by-step process.

According to Cellink Life Sciences, bioprinting is very similar to 3D printing of any other object. Organ 3D printing uses a digital file as a blueprint. It lays down organ cells and biomaterials layer by layer to build up to full organs of the human body that multiply living cells.

There are three necessary steps to the bioprinting process. 

Firstly, pre-bioprinting; the creation of the digital file for the 3D printers to read. Doctor's CT and MRI scans build these blueprints for the printer to copy in 3D organ printing. Researchers then prepare human cells and integrate them with bioink. The second step is loading the cell-laden bioink into a cartridge and choosing the printheads, according to Cellink. The final step is what Cellink calls post-bioprinting, which involves crosslinking. Crosslinking is done by treating the printed cell matter with an ionic solution or UV light, according to Cellink. The construct's composition helps researchers determine what kind of crosslinking to use. The cell-filled constructs are then placed inside an incubator for cultivation, Cellink stated on their blog.


The Vasculature Challenge

Bioprinting challenges are numerous, but the most important is the ability to create working vasculature within an organ.

In the last few years, researchers have started to create successful vasculature on small scale tests. However, any 3D printed organ must be ready to connect to a blood supply and function efficiently immediately. There is no second chance for a 3D printed heart. The human heart has a supremely complicated vascular system. Each cell has to be within 200 microns of the nearest blood supply in the heart, meaning every calculation or the bioprinter has to be exact down to the micron, or it will fail.  

Bioprinted organs will not be available for use for several more years until vasculature can be effectively copied. Perhaps it will be one of Saudi Arabia's innovative medical research facilities that will crack the code. 

The country's investment in 3D bioprinting is encouraging ongoing discovery and investigation into improvements to make this a truly viable technology, accessible to all. The developments in 3D bioprinting will be highlighted here at LEAP in February 2022 during the Biotech Orbital Talks.

"One of the major cornerstones of LEAP is to help build the capacity of Saudi citizens, so they become tech engineers, developers, programmers, and scientists of the future. LEAP aims not only to create knowledge transfer but to inspire our youth to become entrepreneurs and establish their tech-powered businesses," said a Ministry of Communications and IT spokesperson.