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  • 01.04.10

Need an Artery? Just Print One Out

A new firm plans to market 3-D printers that might one day be capable of fabricating entire organs.

organ printer

Organ printing seemed like a crazy sci-fi pipe dream when researchers first started tinkering with it a couple years back. But it’s set to make the leap into real-world use in just a few years. As Information Week reports, Organovo, a company based in San Diego, is working on one of the world’s first commercial 3-D organ printers. Organovo expects the first production models to ship this year to biomedical researchers. Up until now, Organovo has been angel funded, but soon, they’ll be raising VC funds for an expansion.

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The firm’s founding brainiac is Gabor Forgacs, a professor of biophysics at the University of Missouri who is one of the founding fathers of the bioprinting discipline. If you’ve ever used an ink-jet printer, you know the basic technology behind his work. As Information Week explains:

The technology works by using a robot to lay
down cells in precise positions in three dimensions, accurate to within
20 microns. “It’s similar to the way a laser printer prints by putting
solid particles in place,” Murphy told InformationWeek. The 3D
medical printer puts down objects on 2D layers, one on top of the
other. The particles used in the construction are made up of stem
cells, formed into tiny spheres and cylinders…

…Researchers take a cross-section picture of the
object they want to build, such as an artery. “We use that as a map to
paint by numbers,” he said.

The printed material actually comes from two ink-jet cartridges. One is filled with cells. Another is filled with a hydrogel, which acts as a scaffold. The hydrogel is printed first, and the cells onto the structure; in 24-48 hours, they fuse around it to form a usable organ.

(The cartridges and high-precision printer heads are actually related to what’s in use in Coca-Cola’s newfangled Freestyle fountains.)

For now, Organovo will only be able to print out blood vessels. But eventually, the hope is to use increased precision and modeling to create more complicated arterial branches–and one day, full-on kidneys and hearts. The ultimate promise is to provide a much-needed alternative to organ transplants, which suffer from a lack of donors.

But printed organs won’t be in humans just yet: Right now, these machines are directed towards researchers. Human trials of the resulting tissues are at least three years away.

For more, check out Information Week.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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