In what many people will see as heart-warming news, Israeli medical experts have utilised the power of three-dimensional printing technology to produce a heart that has been fashioned almost entirely from human tissues for the first time. Given that there is so much demand for hearts around the globe by people in need of a transplant, it is hoped that the technique could become the norm for tailor-made organ replacements of all kinds. Although the prototype heart that has been rendered from the so-called bio-printing technique is tiny, the researchers involved have successfully demonstrated the principal. It could be one that has far-reaching implications for the medical world.
A professor from Tel Aviv University named Tal Dvir announced the research team’s findings. He claimed that the procedure was the first time anyone around the world has successfully engineered an entire heart with all of the cells, blood vessels and ventricles that would mean it could successfully function. As well as the chambers needed to pump blood around, the bio-printed heart was shown to be completely vascularised which means that it could work within a host body, so long as the technique can be upscaled, that is.
Using a Patient’s Own Tissue
One of the main reasons that patients reject their donor organ is because the body tends to detect foreign antibodies as a result of a transplant. As such, an otherwise healthy organ can come under attack from the patient’s normal immune system. This will not be the case with a 3-D printed heart, however, it is hoped. The reason for this optimism is that the patients own tissues would be extracted by physicians beforehand, according to Professor Dvir’s explanation of his method. Once a bio-printer is set up with the individual’s own tissues, he said that it could then replicate them into an organ without the same fear of subsequent rejection.
In order to achieve this, the researchers had to find ways of augmenting the available tissue taken in the form of biopsy. Dvir’s approach was to split the removed tissues into fatty and non-fatty cells. Some were mixed with so-called stem cells which promoted their growth while the rest of the printing material was built up with a natural gel that was derived from collagen. The result was something akin to a biologically formed ink which could subsequently be utilised by the sort of 3-D printing systems already in existence.
3-D Printing a New Heart
Under the guidance of a computer tomography system which had previously scanned a healthy heart, the team showed they were able to print using their laboratory-made biological ink. Crucially, it could be manipulated on a layer-by-layer basis in order to print out a new heart that matched the individual anatomical shape of a patient’s heart, albeit on a smaller scale. It is thought that the upscaled version of the technique will not just allow for hearts to be ‘manufactured’ in the lab but provide patients with a fully tailored organ that meets their exact biological needs.
Some medics have already pointed out that 3-D printing an exact replica of an existing heart may allow them to work out how to carry out surgical procedures before their patient goes under the knife. In other words, 3-D printing may allow for trial runs of more complex cardio surgeries to be planned in advance in ways that, previously, were never thought possible. Others have pointed out that sections of heart, or cardiac patches, could be made using the method and fitted to patients’ own hearts under normal surgical conditions.
However promising such proposals may be, it is the idea of producing an entirely new heart from 3-D printing that is most exciting. Doctors may soon be able to virtually guarantee a new organ that is both made on-demand and which has little prospect of being rejected or requiring powerful drugs for the body to accept. Dvir claimed that, in future, patients won’t have to wait any longer for their transplants because finding suitable donations will no longer be required. He envisioned a future whereby all new organs will be fully personalised for anyone who needs one. However, he did admit that such an outcome would require extensive testing on animals in order to perfect the process of printing the several billions of cells that are needed to make a human heart facsimile.
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