3D printing has the ability to create almost anything, from customized figurines to bionic ears and even other 3D printers. Recently, one San Diego-based startup discovered it can even generate a slice of a functioning, long-lasting liver by printing layers of living cells.
By harnessing the liver's natural ability to regenerate itself, researchers at Organovo were able to create a piece of liver that was able to operate like a regular healthy liver, filtering out toxins and drugs and keeping in nutrients — for up to 40 days. That extended record beat the company's previous results in April, when the liver slice was able to keep functioning for just over five days. That's a 700 percent increase!
The 3D-printed liver slices showed a normal reaction to acetaminophen (you know, Tylenol) and other drugs, suggesting that it functions on par with a normal human liver. However, the success of the printed liver slices are not yet an indication for full 3D organ transplant operations. A full-grown liver contains tiny networks of blood vessels to stay healthy, which poses a challenge to replicate in 3D printing.
Still, since the human liver is less complex in makeup when compared to other organs, a fully printed liver may be one of the first organs to be successfully recreated. Even millimeter-thick mini-portions of liver could potentially help needy patients who don't require a full organ transplant.
Organovo is planning on using its liver slices in the 3D Human Liver Project in 2014. The project will test human tissue response in drug candidates to provide more accurate results for pharmaceutical research than animal testing can yield. The results can then be used to develop more effective new drugs, perhaps with less side effects.