In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

April 10, 2014

Human organs: To print or not to print

By Elizabeth Harty

3Dprinter760Over the past few years, the idea of 3-D printing real-world objects has gotten a fair bit of attention. And it holds promise for churning out much more than just jewelry, acoustic guitars and pizza. (We're still a little thrown by that last one.)  A recent article by CNN takes a closer look at 3-D printers, which use computer-generated models to create real-world things, and where they might take us in the medical field.

The article, written by CNN's Brandon Griggs and filed under the site's "Innovations" category, says medical researchers may soon find themselves at a point where they're ready and able to use 3-D printers to create, and then print, functioning human organs. (With one small caveat.) "The mechanical process isn't all that complicated," Mike Titsch, editor-in-chief of 3D Printer World, tells CNN. "The tricky part is the materials, which are biological in nature."

That tricky part, however, is made less tricky by the "precise process" of 3-D printers, which Griggs writes "can reproduce the vascular systems required to make organs viable." Griggs notes that "scientists are already using" 3-D printers to print "tiny strips of organ tissue." And while that's certainly different than printing fully functional organs, which the article notes is likely still "years away," medical professionals like Mayo Clinic's Jorge Rakela, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, tell CNN the technology is "rapidly developing" and "holds great promise" for patients around the world. "This is an exciting new area of medicine," Dr. Rakela says. "It has the potential for being a very important breakthrough."

Three-D printing, Dr. Rakela says, "allows you to be closer to what is happening in real life, where you have multiple layers of cells." And those multiple layers  offer cells a better chance of survival than 2-D models. "With current 2-D models, if you grow more than one or two layers, the cells at the bottom suffocate from lack of oxygen," Dr. Rakela tells CNN.

Not everyone, of course, is onboard. "These initiatives are well-intentioned, but raise a number of questions that remain unanswered," Pete Basiliere, research director at information-technology research and advisory firm Gartner Inc., tells CNN. "What happens when complex 'enhanced' organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them? Who will ensure the quality of the resulting organs?"

There's time to grapple with questions like these, as the article goes on to say that "any use of 3-D-printed tissue in surgical procedures" would first need to be reviewed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration -- a process that Griggs writes "could take up to a decade."

You can read the rest of the article (and debate) here. Then, let us know what you think by sharing your comments below.

Tags: Innovation

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