Two years ago Dallas Wien’s face was destroyed by a jolt of electricity. A team of surgeons saved his life and reconstructed his face from other parts of his body. It is without features and has only indentations for eyes, but it comes from his own body tissues. Now he's waiting for another surgery. This time he will get someone else's face.
Currently in the United States, there are over 106,000 people like Dallas waiting on some type of organ donation. But what if these people didn't have to wait? What if severe burn victims like Dallas could replace scarred skin with skin that was almost just like their own? What if a child needing a kidney transplant could receive a fully functional laboratory grown kidney without wasting precious months or years to find a suitable donor?
Though it may sound like science fiction, scientists have found a way to take the first steps towards this with the most unlikely technology: an ink-jet printer. It's now possible to actually “print” living human tissue and the ultimate goal is complete organ regeneration..
This type of engineering is called organ printing and though the concept is a simple one, the execution is challenging and incredibly complex. Imagine using an inkjet printer to create living, three-dimensional organs. Though that degree of bio manufacturing is still many years away the initial steps are already underway.
Organ printing works with a modified inkjet printer but instead of the paper feed process, there is a cartridge moving back and forth filled with cells that are deposited on a Petri dish. The process is repeated several times building multiple layers to create three dimensions of tissue.
Currently scientists are limited to working with about two inches of thickness. Once that threshold is reached it becomes difficult to continue. That's because with more thickness nutrients can't get to the cells that are inside - so they die. All human organs have blood vessels feeding them, keeping them functioning and alive. This is the major hurdle facing scientists now.
How do you build a blood vessel?
Even though blood vessels seem like a fairly simple organ, building one involves multiple phases. The first step is taking a biopsy to remove skin, epithelial, and smooth muscle cells. The three cell types are grown in Petri dishes and they eventually build their own matrix of tissue. Then the sheet of cells is knitted around a tube, which after time can be slid out, and leave a tubular blood vessel.
Another exciting application for organ printing involves nerve grafts. Tissues can build a sort of “nerve bridge” to fill the gap between damaged nerve endings. As scientists master this type of tissue engineering, eventually it will be possible to build a new pancreas, kidney, gall bladder, or liver. Imagine what this will do for people suffering with kidney disease, diabetes, or just about any disease imaginable.
A monumental step towards immortality.
It's possible this could be a monumental step towards immortality. Anti-aging experts agree they will not find a way to significantly slow down the natural aging process. If there were a way to enhance the body's own ability to regenerate tissues and organs, that would go a long way to extend the life of millions of people. Thanks to the pioneering work of bioengineers our children may very well outlive the organs they were born with.