Organ transplant? A 3D printer might be able to help

From tissue grafts to hearts made from bio-ink, 3D printing may soon revolutionise medicine

28 APRIL 2021



If a printer’s gotten close to your body’s inner workings, it’s usually through a paper cut. But 3D printing is changing that. Organ transplants could involve 3D-printed hearts, tissue grafts might use skin that has been run off using “bio-ink”. And prosthetic limbs have the potential to be custom-printed to fit specific individuals’ bodies - which is a way cooler use of printing tech than batch-producing meeting agendas.

A really awesome potential use of 3D printing in medicine is for organ transplants. For years, scientists have been able to print human tissue using “bio ink”. One ink is “hydro-gel”: a water-based, protein-rich gel. It’s filled with cells and is very similar to our own tissue. By printing it in thin layers that are then bonded to each other, it can be used to create 3D objects like hearts or kidneys.

Since 2014, scientists have also been able to 3D print the blood vessels that allow cells to be linked up to our body’s blood flow. This makes it theoretically possible for a 3D-printed organ to actually survive inside us - so scientists have been trying to make that happen. Chicago’s Northwestern University has 3D-printed artificial ovaries for mice, which were successfully used to give birth. A team from Carnegie-Mellon has created a full-size 3D-printed heart. And replica lungs have even been 3D printed that simulate human breathing by expanding and collapsing when air flows through them.