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Hello, and welcome to the reboot of The Weekly Weinersmith, celebrating the paperback release of our book Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything.
In chapter 10 of Soonish we talk about Bioprinting. In particular, we talk about folks who are using 3D printers in an attempt to create organs that can be implanted into people.
This is an important problem to solve. As of May 26, 2019, the United Network for Organ Sharing reports that 113,749 people are currently in need of an organ transplant. While some of these organs will be donated, folks who don’t get a donated organ need to wait for someone who is a biological match and is an organ donor to pass away.
Unfortunately, not everyone on the list is going to get an organ in time. Also – those who do get an organ have a lifetime of being on immunosuppressive drugs in front of them. Since those organs probably aren’t a perfect biological match to what they had before, their immune system could attack the organ and drugs are needed to keep the body from doing that.
So bioengineers are trying to find ways that we can recreate human organs using the exact cells of the person who needs the organ. That should cut down on organ wait times, and remove the need for a lifetime of immunosuppressive drugs.
But as we discuss in the book it’s not an easy problem to solve. In fact, just figuring out how to keep cells alive while you print an organ is a difficult problem. Cells in your body need to be close to blood vessels so they can get oxygen and nutrients, and so they can get rid of waste. So figuring out how to create blood vessels that can later be incorporated into things like livers is an important and hard problem to solve.
One person who is working on the vasculature problem is Dr. Jordan Miller. If you’re a long-time Weekly Weinersmith listener, you may remember that back in 2012 we interviewed Dr. Jordan Miller about how he was using 3D printers to create vasculature. Specifically, he was using 3D printers to create structures made of sugar, which he would then grow blood vessels on. The sugar structure could then be washed away, leaving vasculature behind.
At the time, he was a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to start the Physiologic Systems Engineering and Advanced Materials Laboratory at Rice University, where he is now an Assistant Professor.
Jordan and his collaborators recently published a paper where they use a gel that hardens in response to light to create structures that are non-toxic, and so should be compatible with the human body. The paper made the front cover of Science! Check out the podcast to learn more, and check out this awesome video featuring his work: