Bioprinting to fight cancer – and Covid-19

Breathtaking: Rice University’s tiny printed model of a pair of lungs.

Could printed human organs help end disease forever? In an amazing breakthrough, scientists are creating tiny replicas of human organs – some as small as a pinhead – to test new treatments.

At Dr Anthony Atala’s laboratory in North Carolina, a 3D printer whirrs into life. What it produces is so small that it might be destined for a doll’s house – or at least a doll’s operating theatre.

Instead, the miniature pair of lungs will be couriered overnight to another laboratory 300 miles away. There, they will be used to test drugs which could play a vital part in the fight against Covid-19.

Dr Atala is an expert in bioprinting, a technology that could transform the world of medicine. The tiny “organoids” he produces – some no bigger than a pinhead – function in the same way as the full-sized organs in our bodies, but without the variables created by our individual state of health.

This makes it possible to gauge the precise effect that a drug has on them.

The value of organoids has already been proved in combating diseases such as the Zika virus. Instead of having to find humans willing to be tested with new drugs, Dr Atala and his team can produce thousands of miniature body parts per hour.

And within a decade, some experts believe, it could be possible to create organs on a human scale. “Even to us, it sometimes seems like science fiction,” says another leading biomedical engineer, Dr Akhilesh Gaharwar.

In normal 3D printing, the printer squirts out layer upon layer of a material, such as plastic, to build an object. Bioprinting works on the same principle, starting with a framework known as a scaffold, made out of biodegradable materials which will eventually disappear.

To this, the printer adds layers of “bioink” – a gel containing living cells, which are then left to interact and link with each other until they grow into the required organ.

A major problem for health services, at present, is the lack of organs for transplants. In the US, it is estimated to be the leading cause of death: experts believe that 900,000 lives a year could be saved or prolonged if supply equalled demand. In the UK, the average waiting time for a kidney transplant on the NHS is more than two and a half years.

Printing organs could not only reduce these numbers dramatically, but solve the problem of a patient’s body rejecting the new organ since it could be made using their own cells.

As with many medical breakthroughs, however, ethical concerns have been raised by those who believe scientists are “playing God” and might eventually try to create a new type of human being. It might, for instance, be possible to develop unburnable skin.

Money is another worry. “This is an extremely expensive technology that, if it is realised, only a few will be able to afford,” says Dr Niki Vermeulen, a lecturer at Edinburgh University. “There is a risk that the health inequalities and postcode lottery that currently exist will also make it unavailable for most people.”

Could printed human organs help end disease for ever?

Organ practice

Some say yes. The human body is so complex and interconnected that it is extremely difficult for doctors to investigate and treat one organ without the risk of side-effects elsewhere. With bioprinting, they can create perfect models to establish the best procedure and should eventually be able to replace a diseased organ completely if necessary

Others point out that printed organs might be able to replace diseased ones, but they would not be able to stop diseases developing in the first place. To do that, it would be better for scientists to focus on genetic engineering. And though bioprinting is likely to become less expensive with time, there are many people for whom it will never be affordable.

You Decide

  1. If you were given the chance to have a new, improved brain printed, would you accept it?
  2. Should organ donation be compulsory?


  1. Imagine that, one day, scientists could design tiny humans. Draw one that is sitting on your hand.
  2. Imagine that you are a faulty heart about to be replaced by a printed one. Write a letter to your owner arguing that you should be kept.

Some People Say...

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy: it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.”

Mother Teresa (1910-1997), Albanian nun

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that one of the biggest difficulties with bioprinting has been keeping the resulting tissue nourished, as it would be by microscopic blood vessels in the human body. The problem became clear in creating artificial skin for burns victims, which failed to integrate with the real skin. Scientists have now found a way of printing skin complete with blood vessels – and making sure that it is an exact colour match.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether it might also be possible to print human bone tissue. Dr Gaharwar and his team are trying to develop a type of bioink which is stronger than existing ones for this purpose. If they succeed, the tissue could be used to treat patients with arthritis, broken bones, and malformed faces and skulls.

Word Watch

North Carolina
A state in the south-east of the US, on the Atlantic coast. It was one of the 13 original American colonies, and became a state in 1789.
Measure. Pronounced “gage”, it can also be a noun meaning a measuring instrument.
Zika virus
A virus carried by mosquitoes, which can cause birth defects. It takes its name from a forest in Uganda where it was first identified.
Biomedical engineer
Someone who applies the principles of engineering to medicine. Other examples include developing more efficient artificial limbs.
A temporary structure. Historically, it often referred to the platform from which criminals were hanged.
Cause of death
A third of deaths in the US are attributed to organs that could be replaced – five times as many as are due to accidents.
Postcode lottery
In countries like the UK, where the health service is divided into local authorities with separate budgets, money may be available for certain treatments in some areas, but not in others.


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