3D Printing Innovations Can Save Lives

May 13, 2019 / Brandon Tasset

In the United States alone, almost 114,000 people are currently on a waitlist for an organ transplant. According to the American Transplant Foundation, each day an average of 20 waitlisted patients die because of the lack of viable donor organs.

Thanks to advancements in 3d printing technologies, scientists have developed a potential solution to the organ donor shortage. As profiled in this month’s Science cover story, bioengineers from Rice University and the University of Washington, along with collaborators from Duke University, Rowan University and design studio Nervous System, have created a new process that would, in theory, make it possible to 3D print human tissues and organs.

Stereolithography apparatus for tissue engineering, or SLATE, is an additive printing process in which blue light is used to harden certain portions of very thin layers of hydrogel, allowing remaining portions to remain soft and malleable. The ability to have alternating states makes it possible to mimic the structure of the human lung, in air must move through air sacs without causing them to burst.

The scientists were able to “print” a model of the human lung at a size of about a penny. Over time, researchers are optimistic that they will be able to 3D print full-size lungs, and eventually expand into other organ types like livers, kidneys, and hearts. What’s more, the process is expected to involve the use of a patient’s own cells as part of the printing. This would reduce the risk to the patient of the body rejecting the new organ. These innovations are technologically fascinating, but more importantly, they could save the lives of hundreds of people per year and spare countless others from having to lose their loved ones.

You can see the model in action in this video from Rice University.