It's a commonly known fact that heart failure is the number one cause of death in the developed world. While scientists have advanced various procedures in heart transplantation, the situation for patients in needs remains less than favorable on two grounds: the finding of a suitable donor is difficult and the bodies acceptance of this foreign entity is not without risk of fatal rejection of the immune system.
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Last week a team of scientist lead by Dr. Tal Dvir of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Life Science, published findings that may be the early signs of a game changer for the rules of heart transplantation. The team has successfully printed a 3d model heart using cell matter from a human source.
While synthetic hearts have been produced in the past – ranging from the rather crude robotic models too more advanced 3d renderings – as Dvir states: “This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart complete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles, and chambers,”
While it is true that scientists have succeeded in 3d printing the architecture of the heart, which has included cartilage and the aortal valve tissue, no research team as of yet has effectively generated the porous vascular system through which blood vessels carry out their business and without which an organ will necessarily perish.
While the team's achievement is notable in this regard, Dvir contends its only the first breakthrough among many that will be needed for a truly operable organ: “We need to develop the printed heart further,” Dvir said.
“The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove our method’s efficacy and usefulness.”
Nonetheless, the team is feeling optimistic about pushing their research further!
How does it work?
It is pretty easy to imagine the printing of a 3d wood model, but how to go about printing a fleshy organ like a heart? This is achieved through a 3d ink made up of a biomaterial that is generated through synthesizing a patient's cardiac cells with collagenous nanofibers, which together form a weak gel-like substance. Only after being heated to 37 °C their form becomes resilient.
As the team states in their recently published journal article: “The bioinks are then printed to engineer vascularized patches and complex cellularized structures. The resulting autologous engineered tissue can be transplanted back into the patient, to repair or replace injured/diseased organs with low risk of rejection.”
In the still hypothetical scenario of a transfer, the synthetic biomaterial would serve as a scaffolding for the cardiac cell to regenerate an organic organ. When the integration with the patient is complete the synthetic bio-scaffolding would begin a disintegration process, which would then leave space for the living organ to fully accommodate itself in its new home.
While 3D heart printing may not be available for some time in your local hospital, the team hopes to test their work on rats in the coming years. In the meantime patients, their friends and their family's can look to the future with hopeful anticipation. Who knows, maybe labs will be printing human brains someday?