3D Printing Living Organs, And Other World-Changing Ideas In Health

Learn about the winner of the health category of Fast Company‘s 2017 World Changing Ideas Awards—and the other innovative finalists.

For someone with kidney disease who needs a transplant, it can take three to five years (and, in some parts of the country, even longer) before an organ is available. Patients on the waiting list for a pancreas can wait two years; the wait for a heart can take months. In the near future, a custom organ could be made for a patient within weeks–using a 3D printer and time in a lab.


Bioengineers from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have spent more than a decade developing a system for 3D-printing tissues and organs that could eventually be used in transplants. The process was the winner of the health category of Fast Company‘s World Changing Ideas Awards. (You can see short descriptions of all the finalists below.)

“It is estimated that every 30 seconds, a patient dies from a disease that could be treated with tissue replacement,” says Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “There are simply not enough donor tissues and organs to meet demand. Regenerative medicine offers the hope of engineering replacement organs in the lab to help solve this shortage. Because these organs would be made with a patient’s own cells, there would be no issues with rejection as there are with organs from donors.”

Like other 3D printers, the equipment developed by the researchers prints materials in precise layers. But instead of using plastic or metal, the machine uses gels filled with cells and a biodegradable, plastic-like material that holds the tissue in a specific shape. A lattice of tiny, capillary-like channels in the structure takes in nutrients and oxygen when the tissue is implanted, so it stays alive.


In 2016, the researchers announced that they had successfully 3D-printed a baby-sized human ear, a jawbone, and muscle tissue. After implanting them in lab animals, the body parts survived–something that hadn’t happened in many previous attempts to make 3D-printed tissue–and actually grew. The ear began to grow blood vessels after a month.

“We have been able to print human scale constructs that, when implanted in experimental models, developed a system of nerves and blood vessels and were functional,” says Atala. “The research indicates that tissue structures printed with the system have the right size, strength, and function for use in humans.”


The researchers engineered tissues and organs in the past that were implanted in patients, but those were created by hand. With the use of 3D-printers, they will be able to reach many more people.

“Our biggest challenge initially was to be able to create lab-grown organs that could be implanted into the body,” he says. “We have now implanted several tissues and organs in patients using engineering strategies, such as skin, urethras, cartilage, bladders, muscle, and vaginal organs. These organs were created by hand. Our goal now is to be able to do the same using bioprinting, as this will allow us to automate the process and scale up the technology so it can be applied to many more patients.”

In a new $20 million effort, the institute is partnering with the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium to try to improve the manufacturing process–producing standard “bioinks” and a standardized liquid that can support cell growth–so the system can eventually be widely used. The team is also going through the steps to prepare for clinical trials.


“It is never easy to predict how soon a new technology will become clinically available to patients, but we are working through the regulatory requirements needed to proceed with clinical trials, and our hope is to make this technology widely available in the future,” Atala says. “We also need to advance regenerative medicine manufacturing, like Henry Ford did with the automobile assembly line.”

Here’s more about the finalists in the health category:


by Kernel
This “neuroprosthesis” is designed to mimic and repair brain function. For someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it could eventually address memory loss. The technology is based on research that shows that neural activity can be understood as code. After recording neural signals from someone, it’s possible to build a custom algorithm that mimics those signals and can be sent back into the brain to theoretically restore function.



by PharmAccess
In Kenya, most people don’t have health insurance and struggle to pay for health care. M-Tiba is a service that lets people send, receive, and save funds to pay doctor bills on their mobile phones. The system helps governments and nonprofits collect data about where money invested in health care is spent. Digital payments also help providers reduce transaction costs. Since the service launched in 2016, hundreds of new members have signed up every day.


by DoctHERs
More than half of medical school students in Pakistan are women–but only 25% of them actually go on to work as doctors. At the same time, the majority of people in Pakistan can’t access quality, affordable health care. This startup tries to address both problems through telemedicine clinics: Female doctors work from home, while on-site nurses perform procedures with the doctors’ guidance. The company has clinics in six urban slums and three remote, rural areas, and plans to scale up to 100 clinics in 2017.

Visualize No Malaria

by Tableau Foundation and PATH
To eliminate malaria–a disease that still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year–accurate, real-time data analytics are key. In the Visualize No Malaria program, the global health nonprofit PATH has partnered with a team from the analytics company Tableau to build maps and dashboards that help people on the ground better understand where to deploy bed nets, medicine, and other interventions. Data that took months to collect in the past can be reported and used in real time. In the Zambian province where the program is in use, there was a 93% reduction in reported cases by the end of the rainy season in 2016.



by Oncomfort
For cancer patients, anxiety can peak during medical treatments–and can weaken the immune system, prolong recovery, and even affect cancer biology and cause tumors to grow. Anxiety drugs can cause more problems, so this startup offers another approach: virtual reality modules that can train patients to manage anxiety and help them learn about treatments before they happen. In trials, the VR treatments reduced anxiety 60%.

Chrom Hand Hygiene System

by Zach Scott and Junpei Okai
Ironically, going to a hospital can easily make you sick; nearly 2 million Americans contract hospital-acquired infections every year. Despite the fact that doctors and nurses know they should be washing their hands, the majority don’t do it as much as they should. This simple, low-tech design, called Chrom, slips over a finger and turns green each time hands are washed, changing to white when hands need to be washed again.

Connected Eyes

by Microsoft and L V Prasad Eye Institute
In India, where 55 million people are visually impaired and 12 million people are blind, many could be treated with Lasik, but the resources to perform those treatments are limited. Microsoft India worked with the nonprofit LV Prasad Eye Institute to develop a machine-learning tool that mines data from tens of thousands of eye patients to predict when a surgery is most likely to be effective, so doctors can treat the right patients.


Genome Editing to Find a Sickle Cell Cure

by University of Utah
Using the new gene-editing technology of CRISPR-Cas9, researchers are developing a potential cure for sickle cell disease, a hereditary blood cell disorder that damages organs and leads to early death. By editing stem cells from a patient and then returning those cells to the body, someone could begin to produce healthy blood cells. In tests with mice, the technique has shown early success.

Echo Smart Patch

by Kenzen
Someone with diabetes may have to prick a finger to draw blood four times a day. A new “smart patch,” which uses biosensors to analyze sweat, can measure blood glucose levels noninvasively. The patch can also be used by athletes and others to monitor hydration levels, heart rate, cortisol, protein, lactic acid levels, and other biomarkers.


by Humanscale
The average American worker spends 95% of the workday sitting down–something that can contribute to a risk of heart disease, diabetes, or an early death. This device from Humanscale, a box that mounts on or under a desk, uses sensors to measure when someone is sitting or standing and provides feedback to help change habits.


The Urban Canaries

While urban air pollution affects everyone living in cities, it’s particularly bad for children. These small, portable pollution sensors–designed to look like toys–travel along with kids, changing color as the sensors encounter more smog. A smartphone app maps out where pollution levels are highest, so children could potentially change their routes.

SaTo Sanitary Toilet Products

by Lixil
Designed for use in sub-Saharan Africa, where the lack of modern toilets spreads diseases that often kill young children, these simple toilet pans can cover traditional open-pit latrines. The toilets are both cleaner and more pleasant to use. The company is working with a local manufacturer to offer three models at affordable prices, starting at $5.


by Ekso Bionics
After suffering from a stroke or spinal cord injury, someone with partial paralysis can strap on this exoskeleton at a rehab clinic to relearn how to walk. The device helps patients stand and take steps at an earlier point in their recovery than they could have on their own–but it also lets them use as much strength as they do have, so muscles get exercise.


Kachumbala Maternity Ward

by HKS Architects
In a rural part of Uganda with limited access to health care–and where an estimated 35% to 40% of children die before their first birthday–a new maternity ward has replaced an outdated two-room building from the 1950s. Because electricity is unreliable, the facility runs on solar power. A built-in system collects and purifies rainwater. The design uses natural ventilation and was built with local materials, such as sunbaked bricks. The building is big enough to support six births a day–the average for the region–but was also designed to easily expand, using local construction labor, in the future.

Pregnancy High Risks Tool Kit

by Philips
In developing countries that struggle with a high death rate for mothers during or soon after giving birth, one part of the solution is earlier identification of the women who are most at risk. This low-cost tool kit for health care workers includes checklists, a fetoscope to check the fetal heart rate, and simple, clearly designed booklets and a poster to use when communicating with expectant mothers.


by Vestergaard
Around the world, malaria kills a child every two minutes. One of the most effective ways to prevent the disease is a bed net. The PermaNet 3.0 bed net improves on previous versions by using insecticide that lasts longer–and a combination of ingredients that is more likely to kill mosquitoes that have become resistant to basic insecticides.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley


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