The waiting process to receive an organ transplant is a very extensive process, ranging from months to years depending the organ. However, a team of bio-engineers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is hoping to change that in the near future by developing a system that can 3D print living, fully-functional tissues and organs that could be used in transplants. This process, which was awarded the top award in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards health category, could become one of the greatest medical discoveries in our history.

The 3D Printing Machine, created by researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

According to the Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Anthony Atala:

“It is estimated that every 30 seconds, a patient dies from a disease that could be treated with tissue replacement…There are simply not enough donor tissues and organs to meet demand. Regenerative medicine offers the hope of engineering replacement organs in the lab to help solve this shortage. Because these organs would be made with a patient’s own cells, there would be no issues with rejection as there are with organs from donors.”

The research team has created equipment very similar to traditional 3D printers where objects are printed layer-by-layer. The main difference is that this new machine prints objects in a gel-like material which contains cells and a biodegradable material, similar to plastic, which hold the 3D printed tissue in its specified shape rather than producing objects in plastic or metal material. The produced organs or tissues contain a network of small channels, similar ti capillaries, which can actually absorb nutrients and oxygen upon implementation, ultimately sustaining the parts life.

Last year, the team revealed that they had actually successfully produced an infant-sized ear, jawbone and muscle tissue. These parts were implanted on animals in a lab at the institute where they all survived and actually grew like their actual, natural counterparts would – the ear actually grew blood vessels after the first month! This was the team’s first successful implementation of their 3D printed implants. Atala described the process:

“We have been able to print human scale constructs that, when implanted in experimental models, developed a system of nerves and blood vessels and were functional…The research indicates that tissue structures printed with the system have the right size, strength, and function for use in humans…Our biggest challenge initially was to be able to create lab-grown organs that could be implanted into the body…We have now implanted several tissues and organs in patients using engineering strategies, such as skin, urethras, cartilage, bladders, muscle, and vaginal organs. These organs were created by hand. Our goal now is to be able to do the same using bioprinting, as this will allow us to automate the process and scale up the technology so it can be applied to many more patients.”

The infant-sized 3D printed components created by the research team.

The institute is now working in collaboration with both the U.S. Army Medical Research & Material Command and the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium in order to enhance the manufacturing process. Their hopes are to develop “bioinks” and a liquid which can sustain cell growth. If they are successful, the system’s abilities would drastically increase. Atala provided:

“It is never easy to predict how soon a new technology will become clinically available to patients, but we are working through the regulatory requirements needed to proceed with clinical trials, and our hope is to make this technology widely available in the future…We also need to advance regenerative medicine manufacturing, like Henry Ford did with the automobile assembly line.”

The institute’s research team’s collaboration with U.S. Army Medical Research & Material Command and the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium has received $20 million of funding. According to sources at the institute, the team is already preparing to conduct clinical trials in the near future. The use of 3D printing technology could potentially save both thousands of lives, and years of waiting time for those in need of organ and tissue transplants.