America is amid a health crisis: More than 80,000 people need a kidney, and around 4,500 of them will die annually waiting for one, according to the Living Kidney Donors Network. These statistics aren’t promising for renal disease sufferers, but the major strides being made in the field of 3-D printing are.
The biomedical company Organovo revealed a new technique for generating human kidney tissue through 3-D printers at the 2015 Experimental Biology Conference in Boston, Motherboard reported.
“This revolutionary technology can speed safe and effective drug development, providing an entirely new way to study disease and advance medical research, and, ultimately, create a new source of tissues for surgery and transplant medicine,” states an informational video by Organovo.
Biomedical printing will further pharmaceutical research, because it will eliminate the need for a human subject.
“This gives researchers the kind of tool that they just haven't had in the past,” Michael Renard, executive vice president at Organovo, told CNN Money. “They can’t do the kind of experiments on a person that they can do with this tissue in a lab setting.”
Renard wasn’t willing to speculate on when an entire organ such as a kidney could be printed, but he did say he was optimistic that within a few years, tissues generated by 3-D printers could be used to treat patients by encouraging cell regeneration or replacing small parts or organs.
Ogranovo’s work is in regenerative medicine, a field that seems new but dates back to the 1930s, according to a 2011 TED Talk by surgeon Anthony Atala. So why have so few advancements been made in it?
The technology of 3-D printing might be groundbreaking, but many obstacles still stand in the way of its eternally transforming how we see medicine.
The human body is complicated, and everyone reacts differently to different stimuli. This is precisely why some people’s bodies accept transplanted kidneys and others’ bodies don’t. A challenge will be designing materials that not only are nontoxic, but will also last for a long period of time.
Another potential hurdle for scientists is figuring out how to grow such cells as liver cells, nerve cells and pancreatic cells outside of the body, a process that is essential to the printing of an organ, but has yet to be accomplished.
The consensus among the medical community is that 3-D printed organs are a long way away, according to Motherboard. And even after they become a reality, they will endure a tedious process of regulation and approval. But the advancements in regenerative medicine that took place just over the course of a few years give researchers hope.
“We believe this technology could very much be transformational,” Renard told CNN Money.
Top photo credit: Organovo