A research team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine led by chief researcher Anthony Atala has discovered a method to use a specialized 3D printing system to print “human scale tissue constructs with structural integrity.” The idea behind this process is not new; researchers have attempted to grow new organs from a mixture of amniotic fluid and placental derived stem cells since 1996. In fact, one of Atala’s patients, Luke M., received one of the first genetically engineered organs, a bladder, at the age of 10.
But, their paper published today (February 15, 2016) reveals new methods of printing viable human organs that have capability and strength to function within the human body. The structures are printed by an integrated tissue-organ printer (ITOP) that is able to print cell-laden hydrogels together with biodegradable gel in integrated patterns. The shape is created by computer imaging data to translate cells to specific locations. After the structure is formed, the gel polymers disintegrate, leaving behind a viable organ complete with pathways for nutrients. Previous attempts to create organs with room for blood vessels were too fragile, but this problem was overcome by printing tiny blood vessels.
The team printed three different kinds of structures to show what their printer could do: a human infant ear, muscle tissue, and a small part of human jaw bone. These structures were implanted under the skin of mice and rats. After a short period of time—between two weeks and five months—all three structures not only survived, but grew to form vascularized tissue. This structures will be specially designed for each specific patient through technologies similar to CT scanning and MRI imaging.
Atala has been working on this project for over 15 years. He is described by colleagues as shy and humble, but exhibits divergent thinking in the face of a global heart crisis. Originally he wanted to become a primary care physician in a small community, but as he did surgeries, he was constantly "devastated" by the fact that the tissues he was transplanting into his patients weren't ideal. He knew that there was a better way to find tissue and organ matches for his patients. In his 2011 TED Talk, Atala reported the statistic that in the past decade alone, the need for organ transplants has doubled while the number of donors have barely budged. His new 3D printing technologies could have life changing affects for the over 123,000 patients awaiting organ transplants. Trials are still in preclinical stages, but Atala hopes that these innovations could be implanted in humans within the next 5 years, a novel and appropriate solution to the global health crisis of organ shortages.
“Nothing I ever planned in my life turned out the way that I thought it would, I just went in totally different directions at every single step.” - Anthony Atala
Atala has been the recipient of a number of esteemed awards throughout his research tenure, including Time Magazine’s top 10 medical breakthroughs of the year (2003), Discover Magazine`s Number 1 Top Science Story of the Year in the field of medicine in 2007, one of 14 Pioneers of Medical Progress in the 21st Century in U.S. News & World Report (2009). Dr. Atala’s work was also listed in the Huffington Post as one of 18 great ideas of 2011, in Time Magazine as one of the top 5 medical breakthroughs of the year in 2011, by the American Association of Retired Persons as one of the 50 influential people who will make life better in 2012, and by Time Magazine as one of 5 discoveries that will change the future of organ transplants in 2013.