Last year, Dr. Anthony Atala wowed some “thought leaders” at a TED conference by printing an almost-kidney onstage. Generating synthetic human organs has been a top order of business at top biotech labs for some time now both because the developed world’s aging population desperately needs replacement organs and because attempting to do so gets you invited to things like TED.
And now, researchers at MIT are edging closer to being able to whip up yet another organ with a 3D printer. This time, it’s the human liver, and the secret to pumping them out turned out to be simple old sugar. See, synthetic cells evidently die off before they can form tissue, so they needed something that could hold them together. Sugar was up to the task.
“So far, it’s been difficult to make organs big enough so that they could provide useful function – and if you implant any tissue thicker than about a millimetre, we can’t provide it enough nutrients without also engineering blood vessels into the tissue,” MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia told the BBC. “We created a network of places that we wish vessels to grow into, so they would become piping into the tissue, and we printed those in 3D out of sugar.”
Boom. A liver. Or pretty much any other organ, for that matter: “We tried to make a liver, so we surrounded them with liver cells, but one could do it with any other tissue.”
So at this point it’s pretty much guaranteed that the future will have 3D organ-printing machines. They will be placed next to CAT scanners or vending machines in hospitals. Organ donor lists will become a thing of the past! Or, organ donation will be relegated to the black market, for the poor people who can’t afford the massive health care costs incurred by printing expensive synthetic kidneys. Obamacare will buckle under the costs of 3D organ printing!
Or, real human organs will be reserved for rich people who want the real thing for their heart transplants. “Pure” humanoids will be like the landed aristocracy of the future—there’s a cyberpunk novel waiting to be written here.
Or! Scientists will continue refining organ-generating technology until they have designed a single immortal organ that can replace all other finicky and failure-prone organs and humans will live forever, or until our brains collapse and the thin film of our consciousness evaporates from between the fissures of printed synthetic tissue.