Starting 2014, doctor and patient conversations about livers might change. Patients with cirrhotic livers may soon hear their doctors say, "We will have a 3D-printed liver ready for you in a few days." As fictitious as it may sound, California-based Organovo wants to unveil the first bio-printed organ soon.
The company previously produced a liver-like printout that was able to last for more than a month but eventually its cells died due to lack of blood supply. According to Organovo, there are advancements in creating blood vessels using endothelial cells and fibroblasts through 3D bio-printing and this might help it produce a functioning liver for research as early as next year.
"Beginning with hepatocytes (the predominant parenchymal cells of the liver), designs were created based on shapes and cellular interfaces found in native liver tissue. Non-parenchymal cells, including endothelial cells and hepatic stellate cells, were positioned in defined locations relative to hepatocytes, creating a compartmentalized architecture that was established at the time of fabrication and substantially maintained over time in culture," an article on Organovo's website details the initial data.
"Importantly, these multi-cellular, 3D liver tissues possess critical attributes central to liver function, including production of liver-specific proteins such as albumin and transferrin, biosynthesis of cholesterol, and inducible cytochrome P450 activities," it further discussed.
Organovo is also vying for a $1 million prize raised by non-profit organization Methuselah Foundation for the first functioning 3D-printed liver. The implications are priceless for anyone who will succeed as it may pave the way for bio-printing other functional organs that may serve over 100,000 individuals currently on the organ transplant waiting list in the United States, and perhaps millions across the globe.
"Using 3D printing has given us the reproducibility and the automation needed to scale up.It's a complicated challenge. We don't know all the structures in the body. We're still learning. So we don't know to what extent we need to reconstitute all those features. We have some evidence that we may not need to re-create all those functions," said Rice University professor Jordan Miller in an interview.
As technology conquers how to print out replacement human organs, the next questions will be how they will function inside the human body, how long they will last, and how these bio-printed organs will be commodified. And maybe, as most people do today, can they be ordered online?