From ink-jet printed skin grafts to mouse-grown human ears, research into tissue and organ engineering has an undeniable sci-fi quality to it—especially when biotech companies use phrases such as "tissue on demand."
But it's serious medicine that could have a profound impact on a wide range of disciplines, including cardiology, neurology, orthopedics, urology, and oncology, and many other specialties. Biotech could someday shorten wait lists for donor organs or eliminate organ rejection—since organs would be grown from the recipient's own cells.
It's also a serious market—one that a 2010 MedMarket Diligence report predicted will grow from $6.9 billion in 2009 to almost $32 billion by 2018.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall the day that researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine started talking about the project they're working on.
They use items you'd commonly find around the office—an inkjet printer, ink cartridges, and PowerPoint software. But instead of printing off sleep-inducing flow charts, the researchers fill the cartridges with cells and use the software to map out a shape.
Aided by a computer, the printer sprays skin cells directly onto a 3D scaffold to start the process of growing organs. They can also make skin—they use laser imaging to create a map of the burn site and then spray the healing cells directly onto the victim's wounds. No longer would burn victims have to sacrifice other areas of their bodies for grafting.
The skin printing technique is not yet ready for human subjects. But the technique has shown promise in animal studies. Mice with wounds similar to burn wounds that were treated with the bioprinting technique healed in three weeks compared to five weeks for control animals.
In another bioprinting project, researchers at Organovo, Inc., which focuses on regenerative medicine technology, created blood vessels from human cells that could someday be used for arterial grafts.
The National Institutes of Health is also funding research into bioprinting and other tissue and organ engineering techniques, with grants to develop structural scaffolds, organ-printing technologies, and grafting techniques. The Tissue Engineering Resource Center at Tufts University is funded by an NIH grant. Among other things, the center is working on scaffold designs to control stem cell differentiation and advanced bioreactor systems to impart controlled environmental stimuli to cells cultured on scaffolds.
You can read more about Wake Forest's bioprinting research in this month's issue of HealthLeaders magazine.