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 transported 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.

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.

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?

Activities

  1. Imagine that one day scientists could design tiny humans. Draw one that is sitting on your hand.

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?
Most agree 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 work 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?
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.
Variables
Things that can vary or change.
Ethical concerns
A problem or situation that requires a person or organisation to choose between what is right (ethical) or wrong (unethical).
Genetic engineering
When the genes of a living thing are adapted or changed.

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