Feb 19, 2016 | By Alec
Without a doubt, the 3D printing application with the highest revolutionary potential is the 3D bioprinting of human organ tissue. Though it can still take several years before this becomes a medical reality, a research team from Vanderbilt University led by professor William Fissel is reminding us that there are other ways to create artificial organs. With the help of 3D printed prototypes, they are working on implantable kidney replacements for patients currently hooked onto dialysis machines. The first human trials for these implants could take place at the end of next year.
If successful, this project could utterly change the lives of kidney disease patients. Kidneys are, of course, amazing organs. Working 24/7, these fist shaped organs clean our blood and dispose of waste, going through 150 liters of blood a day. Kidney failure is absolutely deadly, so there are just two options for patients with kidney disease: a transplant – but organ demand far exceeds supply – or very regular dialysis. According to the US Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, there are over 100,000 patients on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, but less than 20,000 organs are available every year. In the US alone, over 460,000 people have end-stage kidney disease, with about 100,000 more cases occurring each year and about that same number dying. Kidney disease cost the US government around $87 billion in 2012 alone.
It is, in short, a sector that could definitely benefit from 3D printed organs, but that can take years. Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s nephrologist and Associate Professor of Medicine Dr. William H. Fissell IV is therefore working on a more practical alternative: a transplantable bio-hybrid device that almost works as a ‘mini’ dialysis tool the size of a soda can. In a nutshell, it’s a synthetic kidney packed with microchip filters and kidney cells powered by a patient’s own heart. “We are creating a bio-hybrid device that can mimic a kidney to remove enough waste products, salt and water to keep a patient off dialysis,” Fissell explained.
Fissell’s The Kidney Project also involves involving doctors, scientists, and engineers from a dozen universities and companies around the United States, as well as bioengineer Shuvo Roy, PhD, who is the technical lead on the project. To construct it, they are relying on a microchip that completely revolves around silicon nanotechnology principles. Already frequently used in the microelectrics industry, they are inexpensive, precise and ideal filters. The final implants will contain about 15 of these tools.
Aside from being excellent filters, they are also covered in custom pores that act as scaffolding for a membrane of living kidney cells. These cells will mimic the natural function of the kidney. Fortunately, these cells grow well in their lab environment, and are being stacked to create membranes of cells that can determine what compounds in blood are nutrients and need to be reabsorbed, and which need to be removed as waste in urine. “We can leverage Mother Nature's 60 million years of research and development" to create a bioreactor in this artificial kidney, the professor explains. Remarkably, it also doesn’t require any battery source you’re not already carrying. The implant will be powered by the natural pressure of blood flow, created by your heart, to push the blood through the filters.
However, there is one serious challenge: how do you ensure the blood flows through without clotting? Fluid mechanics engineer Amanda Buck is working on this part of the project, and is using existing computer models to create custom channels to optimize blood flow. These are being tested with the help of 3D printed prototypes to see if it works properly. While most organ transplants are in danger of triggering the body’s immune response and rejection, the professor expects that this won’t be a problem here, as the device will be kept out of reach of that response. “The issue is not one of immune compliance, of matching, like it is with an organ transplant,” he explains.
This promising project has been ongoing since 2003, when it received its first grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has recently granted them a 4-year, $6 million grant extension. The team hopes that trials can begin at the end of 2017, and they already have a long list of patients eager to contribute. “My patients are absolutely my heroes. They come back again and again and they accept a crushing burden of illness because they want to live. And they're willing to put all of that at risk for the sake of another patient,” the professor says.
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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