According to the United Network for Organ Donation, there are 92,679 people on the kidney transplant waiting list, but due to a limited organ donor supply, an estimated 4,500 people on the list will die this year waiting for a viable organ.
What if, instead of waiting for a kidney, doctors could print one on-demand for patients? It’s a possibility that Surgeon Anthony Atala is exploring:
[Our lab uses] a desktop inkjet printer, but instead of using ink, we’re using cells.
Together with his team at Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Atala uses a CT scanner to create a 3D image of the organ that needs to be replaced. This computer model is then used as the basis for construction; using a small tissue sample from the patient to seed the printer, a new, working, and viable organ is built layer by layer. Right now, the printing process takes about 7 hours.
Although the printed kidneys are years away from functional use, Atala has used the technology to create a working bladder; Luke Masella received a bladder manufactured by Atala 10 years ago. Atala envisions a future in which scanners and printers can be used to treat wounds (printing tissue directly onto patients!) and to manufacture organs, helping to solve the organ-donation shortage by creating organs on-demand.
Watch a kidney prototype being printed below: