By the time that our grandchildren are grown up and have become grandparents themselves, they will probably still have another hundred years of life ahead of them. The technology to replace worn out body parts and organs is growing at such a fast rate that it is difficult for us to keep pace. The amazing thing about the technology is that the new body parts that will be created will not just be any old body parts, they will be made from your own cells and will be as much a part of you as the old part that you are about to throw away. The long incredible story of organ transplants will be rewritten and the fight to prevent transplant rejection, to develop immunosuppressant drugs and find the right donor will become historical anecdotes. Now the competition between groups of medical researchers and bio engineers is really hotting up - is it best to just print them out or grow your own?
Print them Out
3D printing is amazing technology and bioengineers have already managed to print a number of different body parts.
To print ears, researchers at Cornell University took scans of a child's ear and then created molds of the different parts. These were injected with a gel of cartilage and collagen that set and acted like the scaffolding on a new building. The scaffolding was primed with cell culture made from the child's own cells, which then grew into the right shape of cartilage and was ready in 3 months.
Bones are Washington State University's baby. They printed their scaffolding with a ceramic powder, covered it with a layer of plastic binder, baked it in the oven and then cultured human bone from bone cells over the top. They can now use images from MRI scans of injuries and print the exact pieces that are needed to mend complex fractures. A bit like printing the lost piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
The University of Pennsylvania has a thing for blood vessels and its work will be crucial if the technology is to progress to the printing of entire organs. Their technique involves printing sugar filaments in a mold then coating it with a corn polymer. The human cells in a gel are injected into the mold, left to set like jelly and then the sugar filaments are dissolved and washed away with water to leave beautiful clean vascular tubes.
The most ambitious printing project to date has been carried out by Wake Forest Institute who have managed to bioprint a kidney. They deposit cultures of different kidney cells (from the patient's own cells) onto a biodegradable scaffold which will gradually break down as the cells grow into the kidney,inside the patient. Although to date none of the printed kidneys are functional, the project has given hope to the thousands of patients waiting for kidney transplants and as the new kidneys are from the patient's own cells there will be virtually no risk of rejection.
Grow your own
Producing replacement organs in the lab has been a hot topic since scientists managed to grow mouse tear ducts back in 2000. This year Anthony Atala, of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, revealed his success at growing and transplanting vaginas he had created from the women’s own cells.
Four women who were without vaginas due to the severity of the condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser syndrome (MRKH), had a small part of their vulvas removed and used to produce cells which were then layered onto a collagen scaffold, constructed in the shape of a healthy vagina for each patient.
Once the vaginas had been built, doctors inserted them into the women, together with their scaffolds which dissolved naturally within a few months. The operations took place several years ago, but Atala delayed publishing his results until he was certain the procedure had been a complete success.
The teenage girls, who could not menstruate normally or have penetrative sex prior to the operation, are now fully functional and should even be able to have children.
Previous attempts to recreate vaginas have involved skin grafts, which can thicken and do not provide lubrication, or tissue produced from intestinal cells which have the unfortunate side effect of secreting foul smelling mucus.
Atala is currently working on a lab grown functional penis. Other scientists are racing towards the day when an array of spare parts can be created from patients’ own cells – so eliminating rejection problems.
In the long run, the grow your own and 3D printing techniques are clearly going to merge and 'Photoshopping' prints could take on a whole new meaning.