Spare Parts
March 11, 2011 10:41 PM   Subscribe

The printing of an engineered [non-functional model of a] replacement kidney on stage at a recent TED talk is just the latest in a spate of recent high-profile biomedical engineering headlines.

Earlier this year, a British engineer named Tal Golesworthy suffering from Marfan syndrome made headlines for building himself a life-saving custom aorta reinforcement patch using modern 3-D scanning and tissue printing techniques.

Last month, National Geographic ran a show on biomedical engineering that featured the "skin cell gun" (previously - and I should mention it includes brief footage of burn injuries that might bother some folks), a device that deposits a patient's own cultured skin cells on burn wounds and heals severe burns within days, rather than months or years.

Now, we have the recent TED talk by Dr. Anthony Atala about his team's work on organ replacement engineering, which is promising but not yet ready for therapeutic use. The talk is a real stunner, with Dr. Atala displaying a fresh-from-the-printer prototype kidney and introducing a young man who, ten years earlier, received a bioengineered bladder replacement.

Simpler tissues have been in therapeutic use for some time, but more complex replacement organs are quite challenging to engineer, especially when it comes to matching up blood vessels. The kidney, with its massively complicated blood vessel structure, is the holy grail of made-to-order replacement organs, as kidneys are on the wish list of the vast majority of would-be organ recipients.

To be clear, the on-stage demo was a proof-of-concept, not a functional kidney. There have been some misleading reports in the science media regarding this point. As I understand it, Dr. Atala is capable of generating kidney tissue and printing it to match the shape and size of the recipient's kidney, but they have not yet solved the blood vessel issue.

This slice of the future has been brought to you by MRI, CAD, rapid prototyping (a cousin of the DIY 3-D printer), tissue engineering, and stem cells. And, of course, by a culture that values scientific research.
posted by richyoung (17 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I remember hearing about printing kidneys this way maybe 5-10 years ago. I thought, though my memory is hazy, they claimed to be nearly there at that point. Is this one of those things that's always going to be 5-10 years away, or is real, substantial progress being made?
posted by !Jim at 11:08 PM on March 11, 2011

Cleveland Clinic has an extensive bioartificial organs program, including a soda can kidney -- still in the works.
posted by Faze at 4:17 AM on March 12, 2011

Control +P >>P + Control
posted by rongorongo at 5:52 AM on March 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

The printing of an engineered [non-functional model of a] replacement kidney on stage at a recent TED talk..

In eighteen minutes or less?!? Seems like I could hardly get a handful of full-page color photos of a kidney printed in that time.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 6:58 AM on March 12, 2011

they have not yet solved the blood vessel issue

They briefly touched on one solution that uses the patient's own organs… they basically reduce the existing organ to a shell, but one with all the existing structures in place, then they build up with their stem-cell slurry. I'm not sure the ink jet method is going to work for the extremely delicate and intricate pathways of blood vessels.

I'm really curious as to how they were able to maintain a material bond with their "ink" (/cellular slurry) in such a short period of time. I don't get how the structures maintain their shape and don't just fall into a pile of goo.

Anyway, this shit is fucking awesome and makes me feel like we're living in the kind of future I always envisioned we should be living in. Seeing that kid come out and thank the Doc for giving him his life… goddamned science FTFW.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:17 AM on March 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is the sort of news that makes me feel profoundly grateful to be alive, to be a part of this historical era.

Thank you for posting this.
posted by jason's_planet at 7:19 AM on March 12, 2011

Does anybody else have a craving for fava beans and a nice chianti?
posted by substrate at 7:22 AM on March 12, 2011

Ogre, he said that the printing process takes about seven hours for a kidney ("but I want my kidney now!") and that the demo kidney had been printed earlier that day. The printer was in progress on another backstage, which they showed during the talk.

And it might amuse you to know that their prototypes were real inkjet printers that they hacked - you can even see the HP ink cartridges briefly in the video - so the speed comparison you draw is probably not far off.
posted by richyoung at 7:27 AM on March 12, 2011

Medical technology's advancement------------------------------------------------>
<-------------------------------------------Ability of average American to afford it
posted by Thorzdad at 7:39 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's probably just my mood but I hear news like this and think "Great,the rest of the world will be off printing organs and getting cybernetic implants while American is in a heated argument about outlawing fag burning and shooting down nutjos who say you can build a building over 3 stories. Don't those idiots know the canvas falls down? "
posted by The Whelk at 8:43 AM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ability of average American to afford it

I might agree in another context, but not this one. Organ transplants, and the process of keeping people alive while they're waiting for them, are astronomically expensive. You're not guaranteed to accept your new kidney or whatnot even if you get it. This process is scalable, faster, and safer. There's nothing fundamentally expensive about it. That particular axe isn't going to get any sharper here.
posted by phooky at 8:44 AM on March 12, 2011

Cue argument that printing organs is against God's will.
posted by The Whelk at 8:46 AM on March 12, 2011

but they have not yet solved the blood vessel issue.

Goes 0-60 in 2.3 seconds, costs $3000 dollars, and just as soon as someone makes us a miniature fusion reactor we'll be ready to roll for production!

Seriously, the vascularization issue is the major problem that needs to be solved before artificial solid organs have any chance of working. While there is continuous, interesting progress in this area it will likely be a while before it's anywhere near solved. Hollow organs, which have reduced need for substantial blood supplies or which can work off of vasculature in place, might be available sooner.
posted by monocyte at 8:47 AM on March 12, 2011

I sure hope they can finish this quickly enough for my uncle...the kidney he got from my dad 34 years ago is starting to fail.
posted by schyler523 at 6:56 PM on March 12, 2011

Cue argument that printing organs is against God's will.

Think of it as evolution in action.

!Jim, I think the first articles on this were about 2006 - but I don't think any of the actual researchers ever made a claim of "just around the corner". I know there have been some medical trials in Europe.

This is the 21st century I signed up for!
posted by Michael Roberts at 1:32 PM on March 13, 2011

Correction - Tal Golesworthy's aorta hack did not involve tissue printing, but rather 3-D printing of a non-biological reinforcement for his aorta. I guess I've forfeited my right to complain about the quality of science reporting in the future.
posted by richyoung at 6:34 PM on March 13, 2011

Of potential interest : Some scientists at Edinburgh University have reported growing human kidneys of feotal size (1cm long) using a combination of human stem and animal stem cells in a culture of amniotic fluid. They seem to hope that these could be transplanted to a donor and continue to grow to normal size after the transplant.

So it is good to see that the problem is being attacked form more than one angle.
posted by rongorongo at 4:55 AM on April 11, 2011

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