DC Trawler

Printing Human Tissue? Why Not?

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Six years ago in Washington, DC, a State Department security SUV made an illegal left turn and struck me as I crossed the street. My tibial plateau was shattered, and I needed two major surgeries to repair it. The second surgery was called an osteochondral allograft, in which bone and cartilage from a donor was transplanted into my knee. Once my surgeon figured out exactly which part of my knee had to come out, all that was left was to wait for a compatible donor. It took several months to get a good match, during which time my leg was atrophying from disuse. (Physical therapy slowed the atrophying process, but couldn’t stop it.) And sadly, it’s not the sort of tissue that can be taken from a living donor. I’ll never know where my new knee came from, but I thank the donor every day.

The surgery I had, which has enabled me to walk unaided again, is a pretty new procedure. But now medical science is working on something even better. Medical Xpress:

Using a sophisticated, custom-designed 3D printer, regenerative medicine scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have proved that it is feasible to print living tissue structures to replace injured or diseased tissue in patients.

Reporting in Nature Biotechnology, the scientists said they printed ear, bone and muscle structures. When implanted in animals, the structures matured into functional tissue and developed a system of blood vessels. Most importantly, these early results indicate that the structures have the right size, strength and function for use in humans.

They’ve been able to print fragments of skull and jawbone tissue and successfully implant them into rats. Those aren’t weight-bearing bones, as in my case. But it’s a step in the right direction, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Just think: Someday, it may be possible to order up custom-made replacements for irreparably injured body parts, without any need for donors. Less waiting, less suffering, faster recovery. Someday. Maybe sooner than we think.

If we still have a health-care system by then, that is! Fingers crossed.

Then again, we all know how unreliable printers can be…

(Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds)