The hype has died down, but the possibilities have only multiplied. 3d printers used to be always in the news, and people talked about them all the time. It's funny how these days 3d printers and Desktop ink-jet printers are used more than ever in science and medicine. Medical printers use cells instead of ink and can layer by layer print body parts such as pieces of bone which we can implant in patients.
In the future, we will have new medical 3D printers working directly with scanners. These would first create a relief-like map of patients' wounds and print directly into injuries — building up the layers of the regenerated tissue.
At this time, 90% of the patients on transplant lists are waiting for kidneys. Patients die every day because we don’t have enough organs to go around. We don't need to wait around for future medical printers. Instead, we must refine the tools we have.
Currently, we can reconstruct the entire volume of organs from existing CT scans of patients. This is becoming increasingly popular as we engineer replacements for our bodies. These scans must become instructions for how specific layers of cells are to be printed to generate patient-specific organs.
The quest for new technologies to replace functional tissue has been possible because of advancements in the field and is almost solved. Biomaterials are vital for 3D scaffolds which are then coated with actual patient cells one layer at a time to rebuild the organ. Second, it used to be challenging to grow human cells outside of the body.
While numerous advances have made this trivial for most cells, a few notable exceptions include liver, pancreatic, and nerve cells. The most significant challenges in bioengineering have been recreating the vasculature of organs, but new fabrication techniques with biomaterials allow for vessels to be constructed.
There’s a significant health crisis today in terms of the shortage of organs. In the last decades, the number of patients requiring organs has doubled, while the actual number of transplants has barely gone up. With an ageing population, this divergent trend will only continue. We must see work in bioengineered organs not just as a neat demonstration of futuristic technology — but as desperately needed.