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3D Printing a Heart

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Scientists now believe that within a decade they will be able to 3D print a human heart. To be able to construct a new organ seems incredibly complex; however Stuart Williams (executive and scientific director of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville) states that the heart is likely to be the easiest of all organs to reproduce as it is essentially just a pump with tubes. The goal is not just to 3D print hearts, but to be able to do so in less than three hours! Fat cells are the intended material to use in the construction and with just 50 CCs (roughly two golf balls worth) they should be able to construct a heart.

Some of the more delicate parts of the heart, such as the valves and blood vessels, would need to be constructed separately and then “glued” to the rest of the structure, using biologically safe glue! The aim of printing organs is to maximise the number of patients receiving them.

The most difficult part of 3D printing organs is trying to keep them alive; after printing is complete, the organs take time to grow and mature before they can be utilised. 3D printers can only produce items approximately a few millimetres wide, however the heart has a network of capillaries and the smallest of those is but a few microns thick (that is a 1000th of a millimetre) and they are vital for the survival of the organ.

The other major issue, as is usual in scientific development, is money. 3D printing is expensive and a considerable amount of additional funding is needed to see this research to its end.

The foundations of this project are solid but there still needs to be rapid progress in the printing of more complex tissues and in creating enough cells to be able to print organs and then to allow them to mature. Kevin Shakesheff, director of the Wolfson Centre for Stem Cells issue Engineering and Modelling and the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Hub in Acellular Technologies, stated that there is a great interest in supporting this scientific advance as it is well understood that the technology would lead to new discoveries and additional therapies.

So within 10 years we should see the appearance of 3D printed organs in use in hospitals around the world!

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