3D printing technologies are now so advanced they can create structures on a nanoscale. But how close are we to seeing 3D printed organs in the market? Professor Hala Zreiqat and Dr Peter Newman from the University of Sydney explain.
From cures for cancer to fusion power and driverless cars, almost every technology seems to be perpetually five-to-ten years away, according to Newman and Zreiqat.
For researchers, “five to ten years away” means it’s been worked on it for quite a while and it seems feasible.
How stem cell research has changed since the 1800s
Over the last decade, there has been a paradigm shift in stem cell research.
Since the mid-1800s, researchers have been growing cells in sheets layered on top of glass and plastic dishes. This method is the cornerstone of biological research and its impact has been immeasurable – it’s responsible for the development of vaccines for polio, measles and smallpox, as well as the insulin that’s used daily by millions of diabetics worldwide.
That’s why it’s surprising that stem cell biologists have stopped using this method. Why? It’s simple, a sheet of cells layered over a dish doesn’t behave anything like the organs from which they’re derived.
The change in method is the paradigm shift that means 3D printed organs are knocking at your doorstep.
Progress on 3D printed organs?
Biologists have stopped growing cells in sheets layered over petri dishes and have started studying suspensions of three-dimensional organ-like cell masses, otherwise known organoids.
If given the right biochemical cocktail, stem cells will proliferate into supercellular networks that spontaneously organise into three-dimensional structures that mimic the physiology of real organs.
The progress is staggering and multifaceted. Organoids promise to cut down on the need for animal testing and offer improved models to understanding disease progression. However, the study of organoids has offered unprecedented insights into the development of organs.
Producing organoids at a scale large enough to confer therapeutic benefit to humans remains a significant challenge. Large structures require supporting scaffold structures, such as the meshwork of collagens that stitch together the cells of a person’s organs.
However, recreating scaffold structures with sufficient detail to support the growth of large-scale cell structure has proven problematic.
Enter 3D printing
The increase in life expectancy in Australia has improved dramatically in the last century with the expected age at death of 84.6 years for men and women 87.3 for women. This will lead to a significant increase in the need for organs to replace the damaged ones.
While biologists have been busy revolutionising cell culture methods, engineers have developed 3D printers that can focus light so tight, it can polymerise features similar in size to that of a single collagen molecule. This technology is known as multi-photon 3D printing and is the brainchild of Professor Martin Wegener.
As a pioneering user of this technology he’s demonstrated materials that can bend light around object, effectively making them disappear.
Wegener’s visit marks the start of a journey with this technology.
The University of Sydney Nano Institute has drawn Wegener to Australian shores, and organised seminal lectures hosted at the Sydney Nanoscience Hub. This begins the journey with this technology.
Over the next five-to-ten years the researchers aim to use multiphoton printing to build synthetic scaffolds mimicking the meshwork of collagens that hold organs together.
These will be sufficiently complex scaffolds which will support the growth of organoids large enough for clinical applications.
Maybe it’ll be more than five, or even ten years, before people are stopping by the hospital to pick up a new heart, but these researchers believe that 3D printed organs will be happening by then.