A company, BioLife4D, which develops and manufactures bioprinting technology, focuses on printing biological components for use in repairing the human heart as a stepping stone towards producing an entire imprinted transplantable heart. She believes there is a multi-million dollar market for the various components, such as heart valves, which she will have to learn how to print along the way.
“But if you’re able to print one liver, you don’t have anything until you print the next whole liver,” says company general manager Steve Morris. “From a scientific point of view, you can also bio-design a heart with a specific defect to allow the treatment to be tested.”
Redwan points out that in the short term, printed organs will more effectively model disease in the lab and aid in drug development. This, in turn, should help reduce animal testing levels. In the medium term, when life-size organs are printable, the challenge may then become to meet demand. Currently, there are huge shortages of organ donors to meet the demand for those in need of transplants.
“There are, for example, around a million people in the world waiting for a kidney transplant,” says Lewis. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 130,000 organ transplants take place each year, but this only meets 10% of transplant needs. In the United States alone, there are 107,000 patients on transplant waiting lists. “Just being able to donate organs to these people would have a huge impact in itself,” says Lewis.
Those lucky enough to receive a donor transplant must also spend the rest of their lives taking immunosuppressive drugs to prevent their bodies from rejecting these “foreign” organs. But if a new organ can be imprinted using its own cells, it should significantly reduce the risk of rejection.
Faced with such a need and such a potential advantage, the great lengths required to grow organs in space seem more attractive. But printing in space doesn’t come cheap. The biofabrication facility on the ISS cost $ 7million (£ 5million) and add to that the cost of putting cells and other raw materials into orbit before bringing the organs back to safety. Large production runs are also going to be difficult. This has led some to investigate whether the low gravity environment found in orbit can be replicated here on Earth to develop complex and delicate organs. Russian medical company 3D Bioprinting Solutions, for example, has produced a system that uses a magnetic field to levitate tissue while forming the desired structure.