Biotech researchers in Houston work to create replacement organs

World Today

Imagine needing a new organ, like a lung or a kidney. Usually, you would have to join thousands of others on a waiting list for a donor.

But that could change in the future where doctors simply print you a new organ.

As CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports, that that may be closer than you think.

At Rice University in Houston, Texas, researchers said a small piece of gel floating in a laboratory beaker represents a big step towards potentially bioprinting human organs sometime in the future.

“We’ve been working in area of materials called hydrogels that a lot of people have been looking at for the last few decades, trying to make materials that could encapsulate cells and keep them alive,” said Jordan Miller, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering.

Yes, human cells. Using a 3D printer, Miller and his colleagues have found a way to turn photo-sensitive liquids into solids containing the entangled networks of airways and blood vessels that make our bodies run.

Not an easy thing to do. Thereby mimicking the living human tissues that make up our organs. This breakthrough technique achieved with the help of open-source software made the recent cover of the elite journal Science.

“We really set out to develop a technology that could generate very complicated, multi-vascular architecture inside of a soft material made mostly of water, and that’s what we’ve done,” Miller said.

“We can make these tissue blocks pretty easily but the challenge actually is maintaining the viability and functionality of cells inside them,” Bagrat Grigoryan, a Bioengineering graduate student who worked with Miller said. “What we’re really excited about is making scalable tissues that could one day be implanted into humans.”

That could be very significant and maybe not as far-fetched as we think. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, more than 113,000 Americans are currently on a waiting list for a new organ.

Not only is there a significant shortage of people willing to be organ donors, but transplant recipients also require a lifetime of immune-suppressing drugs to prevent organ rejection. Bioprinted organs could also be much more than a transplant alternative.

“And so if we could have a ready supply of replacement organs for people, the long-term vision is a really dramatic improvement in the way that health care is done all around the world,” Miller said.

It will be decades, he cautioned, before that’s a reality. Organs are complex structures that are still not fully understood. The air sacs printed in his lab are much larger than the millions contained in our lungs. Much more elaborate 3D printers will be needed to create organs.

“I believe it’s very achievable in our lifetime,” Miller insisted.

And potentially life transforming, if all the challenges that come with it can be solved.