Using just a hacked 3D printer and some other readily available equipment, biomedical engineer Adam Feinberg is able to print structural replicas of the tissue of human arteries, brains and other organs that could one day benefit humans in dire need of an organ transplant.
While these replicas cannot function as regular organs due to the type of materials used currently, they might represent the early stages of the process of printing real functioning organs, complete with living cells.
In the past, doctors have been able to utilize 3D printing technology to repair the damaged windpipe of a baby, replace a person’s jaw with a titanium replica and produce small livers to be used in drug testing.
There are many challenges that must be overcome before 3D printing can create advanced functioning organs.
Still, science is inching ever closer.
One simple problem that Feinberg had to deal with was that the organs were originally crafted out of collagen, and the material will collapse under its own weight unlike the plastics that are typically used in 3D printing.
Support was needed to ensure that the collagen wouldn’t just fall apart. Feinberg and his team have since been somewhat able to reduce this issue by adding gelatin to the collagen in order to make it more stable.
Meanwhile, University of Florida professor Tommy Angelini is also working to engineer complex tissues of the human body. According to Angelini science isn’t that far away from using 3D printing to make legitimate functioning human organs.
Angelini said, “That’s going to happen eventually, but there’s still so much fundamental science to be done. Right now we have animal models, mice and rats, and we have (human) clinical trials, and not a lot in between. You can potentially make basically a patient-specific piece of heart muscle.”
As a first step, and one that increasingly appears to be closer to reality, drug companies might use the replicas created by 3D printing to test the effects of drugs before they are used on real humans. For example, a heart made from 3D printing might be tested with a potential heart medication to make sure that it is safe for human use.
As for Feinberg, it really is quite amazing that he was able to produce organ replicas using little more than a hacked 3D printer that he purchased from a store. He has started releasing tutorials on how to hack a 3D printer to make it support biological materials so that other scientists can continue to achieve innovation in the field.
Feinberg said, “We think it’s a lot easier to use these less expensive machines. We can essentially modify it any way we need to make it work.”
Fienberg also demonstrated his printing technique at a school, where he used chocolate frosting instead of collagen and gelatin.