Dr. Anthony Atala turned a few heads at this year’s TED conference with his talk about a revolutionary new technology: a 3D printer that can actually print working human organs. Contrary to some early news reports, the kidney he printed on stage wasn’t functional (it was more like a mold without any internal structures), but printing human tissue out of a machine is still pretty amazing.
Atala, director of the Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, explained that this isn’t just some cool toy. As humans keep living longer, the need for organ transplants has skyrocketed. In the last 10 years, the number of needed transplants has doubled, while the number of donors has stayed about the same.
Here’s how it works: A machine scans a 3D image of the organ. Then, tissue from the patient is used to seed the printer, which creates a new organ layer by layer over the course of six or seven hours. While this technology isn’t quite ready to use right now (Atala stressed the continued importance of getting people to become organ donors), it certainly isn’t a pipe dream. Biomaterials–that is, cells that have been engineered using things like stem cells–have already been used to patch up ailing hearts.
In the future, these printers won’t only create new organs. They’ll also be able to do things like scan an open wound and print new skin right on the patient. However, the Holy Grail of this technology is the organ printer. It’s not a coincidence that Dr. Atala decided to print a kidney–90 percent of people who need a transplant are waiting for a kidney. While some people might find this all a bit creepy, it’s not hard to see the world-changing implications of this new technology. Check out the entire TED presentation below.
Photo: James Duncan Davidson, TED