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Medical Musings: A moon shot for organ bioprinting

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously challenged Congress to finance a manned Moon exploration program in a move that leapfrogged the USA over the Soviet Union, which had stunned the world in 1957 with launch of the Sputnik.We need another bold move -- this time in the field of medical care.

November 28, 2011

2 Min Read
Medical Musings: A moon shot for organ bioprinting

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy famously challenged Congress to finance a manned Moon exploration program in a move that leapfrogged the USA over the Soviet Union, which had stunned the world in 1957 with launch of the Sputnik.

We need another bold move -- this time in the field of medical care.

Bioprinters, such as this model from EnvisionTec, can often sit on tables.

"If the federal government created a 'human organ project' and wanted to make the kidney, I literally think it could happen in 10 years," says Keith Murphy, CEO of Organovo (San Diego, CA), which  developed one of the first commercial bioprinters.

A year ago, Organovo, announced the first fully bioprinted blood vessels in data presented at the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society meeting in Orlando, FL. "This is exciting progress towards functional human arterial grafts. Success in an effort like this could eventually help tens of thousands of patients," said Dr. Craig Kent, chief of surgery at the University of Wisconsin.

The vessels are the world's first arteries made solely from cells of an individual person.

Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center engineered miniature livers that function -- at least in a laboratory setting -- like human livers. The next step is to see if the livers will continue to function after transplantation in an animal model.

The engineered livers, which are about an inch in diameter and weigh about 0.20 ounces, would have to weigh about one pound to meet the minimum needs of the human body. To make the organs, scientists used animal livers that were treated with a mild detergent to remove all cells, leaving only the collagen "skeleton" or support structure. They then replaced the original cells with two types of human cells: immature liver cells known as progenitors, and endothelial cells that line blood vessels. The "liver" was next placed in a bioreactor that provides a constant flow of nutrients and oxygen to the organ. Widespread cell growth took place inside the bioengineered organ.

In practice, support structures, or scaffolds, would often be made with specially developed bioresorbable plastics.

A lab at Cornell in Ithaca, NY, is developing bioprinted heart valves. Bioprinted lungs are under development at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH) and the Draper Lab (Cambridge, MA).

Materials and equipment technology are already well developed. A German company called EnvisionTec has also developed a bioprinter. The big missing ingredient is large-scale financial support to take the technology to the next level. The projects aren't close enough to reality to attract significant corporate support.

The last big round of economic stimulus funding focused on highway construction and other infrastructure project.

Development of replacement human organs should be our next moon shot.

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