Surveys conducted by the German Organ Transplantation Foundation (DSO) say the number of organ transplant donors has plummeted 18 percent in the past year. With the demand for organ transplants increasingly overtaking supply, physicians are hopeful that new technologies (such as 3D printing) could one day fill in these gaps.
As a first big step, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) in Stuttgart recently announced that they’ve created a bio-ink suitable for printing a number of tissue types.
The key to the new ink’s versatility is its gelatin base. Gelatin, a derivative of collagen, is one of the main constituents of human tissues. While gelatin is normally in a gelatinous state at room temperature, the IGB researchers have created a way to keep the material in a liquid form. This makes it easier for the 3D printer to manipulate the material, depositing it onto a sterile sheet where it can then be cured with a UV light and rendered solid.
According to the IGB, “researchers can control the chemical modification of the biological molecules so that the resulting gels have differing strengths and swelling characteristics. The properties of natural tissue can therefore be imitated – from solid cartilage to soft adipose tissue.”
While 3D printed organs are still a long way off, IGB’s material is an important step forward in this burgeoning medical field. “Only once we are successful in producing tissue that can be nourished through a system of blood vessels can printing larger tissue structures become feasible,” says IGB researcher Dr. Kirsten Borcher.
In the coming decades, the population of elderly people will dramatically rise around the world, increasing the demand for advanced biotechnology. If 3D printing technology can mature in time to meet these growing demands, it will find a huge market and be able to contribute to a higher quality of life.