Manufacturing Human Organs

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Manufacturing Human Organs

Early this year, something startling happened at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco. A researcher from Clemson University demonstrated that an off-the-shelf inkjet printer could print layers of heart cells, creating tissue suitable for implantation in human cardiac patients.1

The technique was originally discovered in 2004, and since then researchers have been honing the use of 3-D printers to develop the precise placement of cells that is necessary to create live, beating heart tissue.

Meanwhile, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University2 made a presentation at a meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in San Diego that showed how they used an inkjet printer to coax stem cells derived from muscle to differentiate into both muscle and bone as part of CMU’s Tissue Engineering Initiative. This was the first time that multiple cell types had been used to produce an integrated pattern of tissues starting with a single population of adult stem cells.

These are just two breakthroughs in the burgeoning field that is coming to be known as regenerative medicine, which seeks to replace damaged tissue in people suffering from everything from osteoporosis to Muscular Dystrophy, as well as injuries from accidents, the damage from heart attacks, and the consequences of aging.

One of the reasons for these new advances is the growing emphasis in scientific research on cross-disciplinary efforts that ignore the traditional boundaries between specialties. For example, although this work is essentially “pre-clinical medical research,” the inkjet printer was developed by Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Its ability to lay down cell patterns in virtually any design or concentration was due to input from medical researchers who were experts in how tissue grows. The team also drew on expertise from CMU’s Institute for Complex Engineered Systems. This type of interdisciplinary cooperation among health care researchers was virtually unknown just 15 years ago.

The result of the work at CMU and elsewhere has been a technique in which multiple tissue types can be grown in the same place, which is what the human body does when growing a real organ. This new system provides an unprecedented means to engineer replacement tissues, and ultimately entire organs, for transplant.

The precision of the new system in placing the correct type of cells in the appropriate location means that the actual manufacturing of human organs for transplant is finally within reach.

The key to this, however, is a breakthrough discussed in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences...

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