By Steven Morris
The heart is one of the most important organs in the human body, and nobody can survive without one. However, it is possible to survive without your own heart, long as you receive a functional one to replace it.
On December 3, 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant on 53-year old Lewis Washkansky, a South African grocer dying of heart disease. Although Washkansky died 18 days later from pneumonia, his new heart functioned normally until his death, foreshadowing innovation within this lifesaving procedure.
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Much progress has been made in heart transplants since then, but even so, only half of the heart transplant recipients lucky enough to receive a donor heart live longer than 10 years. Perhaps the biggest problem now is not in the operating room, but in the very finite supply of, and seemingly endless demand for, hearts. At any given time, there are over 100,000 Americans alone on the waiting list to receive heart transplants, but only about 2,000 heart transplants are performed in the U.S. each year. That means an alarmingly low 2% of the demand is met. In this era of medicine, a 98% failure rate is simply unacceptable.
Organ rejection is also an obstacle that the transplant industry must overcome. This is when an organ recipient’s immune system recognizes a transplanted organ as foreign and attacks it, intending to protect the body. This occurs when the cells of the transplanted organs are not close enough of a match to the recipient’s. With that said, transplanting patient-specific organs – or as close to them as possible – is crucial.
Despite all of world medicine’s progress, there has not yet been a solution to this supply-and-demand problem. While individuals take whatever measures they can to improve their heart health and avoid becoming part of the demand, the medical field is looking to 3-D bioprinting as a means of increasing the supply of available organs.
3-D bioprinting is the process of creating cell patterns in a confined space using 3-D printing technologies, thereby preserving cell function and viability within the printed construct. More simply, a 3-D bioprinter is a specialized 3-D printer developed to protect living cells during printing. Now bioprinters can create functional biological structures to potentially restore, maintain, improve, or even replace existing organ function.
3-D bioprinting may seem like a “next generation” concept, but so, too, did many medical advancements and achievements throughout the course of human history. In fact, for some time now, scientists and engineers have used 3-D printers to create objects from metals and plastics, in an industry projected to be worth nearly $33 billion by 2023. Printing inanimate objects has its use, but what if we could print functional human organs? It may sound like science fiction, but it’s science fact.