No More Waking Up in a Bathtub Full of Ice

© Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library/Corbis

How could 3D printers eliminate the need for organ donors? What are the benefits of printing human tissue? What progress has been made so far? Join Jonathan, Lauren and Joe as they explore the future of printed organs.

Male Speaker 1: Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to Forward Thinking.

Jonathan: Hi there everyone. Welcome to Forward Thinking. I am host number one, Jonathan Strickland. And with me are hosts two and three, introduce yourselves.

Lauren: Hi, I'm Lauren Vogelbaum.

Joe: Hi, I'm Joe McCormick.

Jonathan: And what are we talking about today, Joe?

Joe: Well, we're going to be talking about 3D printing, and to start off a little bit, 3D printing is basically exactly what it sounds like. The way you print a document today is that you get an image of what that document would look like on your computer, and that's digitally rendered. It's sent to the printer and then the printer creates that in the real world with ink on a page. Now, of course, that's basically, for all intents and purposes, two-dimensional. Extend that another dimension. Now you have a machine that takes a digital model and it creates a three dimensional object. So this is what we would call additive manufacturing. So you can take any kind of moldable material like plastic, or glass, or metal, and you can create an object with a printer that lays on tiny layers, one little bit at a time, to create any object you can design in a digital way.

Jonathan: Cool, yeah. And this is used in a lot of different fields, including, in manufacturing, a lot of prototypes are made this way, because prototypes, traditionally, the way that people would make a prototype model of a product, would be to take some sort of material and carve away at it until you reach whatever your destination product is.

Joe: Hence additive manufacturing instead of subtractive manufacturing.

Jonathan: Exactly, because you're subtracting material to get to what you want, but with 3D printing, you're just adding what is needed. So there's not really - you don't have that problem of waste like you would if you were carving or melting stuff away.

Joe: So here's an even cooler thing that we could do with 3D printing, though. Of course you can make a chess piece or an action figure.

Jonathan: Those are both on my list.

Joe: Right. What if you could make a kidney or a liver?

Jonathan: So you're talking not for dinner, but for actual medical purposes.

Joe: An organ that works.

Jonathan: That is phenomenal, and there are people who are working on that.

Lauren: Yeah, it's actually hypothetically not all that very far off. Researchers have just recently created the first live human - well, they're working towards the first live human tissue. They have create a 3D printer that, instead of using ink or plastic or whatever else you would put in a printer, it deals out these droplets of embryonic human stem cells in a nutrient soup, and it does this so gently and so precisely that the cells remain living and remain capable of developing into different cell types.

Jonathan: So, what you could do is, by using these stem cells and using the appropriate type of tissue, you could print them in such a formation as to create an organ. That's kind of like the goal we're talking about here.

Lauren: That's the end goal. Right now, they're basically just printing little layers of soup, and saying, "This soup could become something someday.

Jonathan: Layers of soup. That sounds like a great name for a band.

Joe: Isn't that a Frank Zappa album?

Jonathan: It might very well be. Kids, ask your parents. Yeah, this is some really cool applications here.

Joe: Well yeah. They already think they can do some really amazing things with this. Just one example is, imagine there's a burn victim who has lots of cellular damage all over the surface of the body. Now, in some cases if the burns are small enough you can get skin grafts that would help cover up the burned areas, but imagine if there are a lot of burns, you can't cover it with skin grafts. Well, you could print, with a medical 3D printer, you could print a layer of cells to go over the burned areas that could help the wound heal faster, and help prevent infection and contain disease.

Jonathan: And that's incredibly important with burns. Infection is one of those things that can make a serious condition a critical condition, and that's true for any major injury. In fact, I was reading about a potential - actually I wasn't reading, I was watching. There was a great video, a TED Talk, by Anthony Atala, and this dates back to 2011, when he was talking about a potential new technology that what it would do is scan someone who has suffered a wound, and then after scanning the wound, would immediately start to print repairs to the body. So that could be everything from muscle tissue to ligaments to bone to even skin, so that it would be a multi pass system. The first pass would be the scan, the next pass would be printing. And it would probably scan and print, scan and print, and you would heal wounds incredibly rapidly, not quite so fast as in the series that we all love, Star Trek.

Lauren: Yeah, it's not quite a tricorder yet.

Jonathan: Not yet, but that's a phenomenal idea. And beyond that, there's the idea of just printing out a replacement organ based upon the patient's cells, so that the organ has a high - does not have as high a risk of being rejected by the body. So, that's something we all know about. In order to get a transplant these days you have to have an organ donor, and that donor has to be compatible with the patient. By printing, you could print out an organ that's already compatible with the patient, and that reduces the chance the body will reject the organ. You're never going to reduce that chance to zero, at least not based on our understanding of how the human body works right now, but you could definitely impact it.

Lauren: And all of this is pretty far off. I mean, like I said, they are right now using embryonic human stem cells. If we could move into using pluripotent stem cells, made from adult.

Jonathan: Sure, adult stem cells, where it's - the issue here is that embryonic stem cells have the opportunity to develop into lots of different kinds of tissue. Adult stem cells tend to be already a little specialized. They're limited in what kind of tissues they can become based upon most of our applications right now. But this would give us many more options, right? When we need to print up material. Also, I should point out that 3D printers can work in biomedical materials, not just actual human tissues.

Lauren: They've been practicing with using different artificial human tissue that can be printed out and then, using a very focused laser, zapped into an appropriate form to form, for example, a blood vessel.

Jonathan: And this is incredible stuff. It's also very tricky because there are only so many materials that you can introduce to a human system without the risk of infection or rejection.

Joe: But one application outside the human body, of course, would be research. If you could manufacture organs that you could do research on without endangering actual human tissue that's attached to somebody.

Lauren: Or a cute fuzzy bunny rabbit.

Joe: Or having to take it.

Jonathan: Yeah, think about pharmaceutical tests. Now granted, this raises up a lot of ethical questions. I'm sure people would ask, "Is it ethical to create artificial - " You're creating real organs using this 3D printing technique. Actually, if you used any technique to do this, but 3D printing is the one we're concentrating on. If you were to create those organs, is it ethical to be able to do these sorts of tests. For my perspective, I tend to think yes. I think that's far more ethical than having to ask for a volunteer population or to take animals which have no ability to consent to this sort of testing, and to think, like, "Okay, well, we've developed a new drug that's meant to fight off a particular disease, but we don't know how it would affect healthy tissue."

This would be a way of being able to do those tests in a manner that's not going to put at risk the life of an actual person. So it could be incredibly effective. Also, I think it's important to remember that for us to reach that amazing future where we have the $6 million man, not all of those parts need to be robotic in nature. We can create bigger, faster, stronger organs because we'll have the technology.

Joe: No way.

Jonathan: I just want a stomach that lets me eat ghost peppers without feeling badly afterward, because I love the spicy. But you know, hey, the show is not all about how does Jonathan take future technologies and bend them to his own will. Though it kind of is, really.

Lauren: It's not?

Joe: 80 or 90 percent.

Jonathan: Okay. All right, so no, I definitely want that. But seriously though, the potential benefits here are phenomenal. It means that we could get to a point where there won't be a place for you to put on your driver's license that you're an organ donor, because it's not necessary. Which would be a wonderful world to live in where people who have a desperate need for an organ transplant aren't in a waiting game where they have no idea when, if ever, they will receive an organ.

Lauren: And hopefully eliminate an organ black market, all of that kind of scary territory.

Jonathan: Sure, yeah. I mean, if we're talking about something that is widely distributed, in particular, then you have eliminated an entire possible black market. You've reduced the risk of people being forcibly submitted to organ transplants.

Joe: Oh, where you have the story of the bathtub and the ice.

Jonathan: Waking up in the bathtub with the ice, yeah.

Lauren: We'll have no more jokes about bathtubs full of ice.

Joe: But, do we want to live in that world, where we don't have that joke?

Jonathan: That's okay, because we have other jokes, like, "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light?

Joe: Those police procedural episodes.

Jonathan: And there's also the hook that's hanging from the door handle. There are plenty of other urban legends that we can concentrate on.

Joe: Oh, that's true. The next generation of prosthetics could make that story history too.

Jonathan: That's true. Well, you know what, I'm confident that our futuristic world will generate all new urban legends for us to really focus on. You know?

Joe: That's true. You'll have, I don't know, the robot hanging off the back of the car.

Jonathan: Exactly. Yes, the robotic arm, and thinking the robot has a -

Joe: The robot has escaped.

Jonathan: The crazed robot that roams the hills. Oh man, I look forward to telling that urban legend around a digital campfire one day. But yeah, getting back to the 3D printing of the human tissue, to get a little more serious, this is something that I'm really genuinely excited about. It's this thought of being able to really improve the health conditions of people who desperately need it, and of course we're all starting to live longer. Our health has improved over time so that our life spans have extended quite a bit, and that means that there are more opportunities for things to fail, so more and more of us are going to be in an experience where something like this might be necessary. So to see this technology starting to blossom today and know that within a generation or two, it may be sophisticated enough where an organ donor is something that just, you've only heard about in -

Lauren: History textbooks.

Jonathan: History textbooks, or visiting me in the old folks home, while I sit there and talk about the old days when you had to wait for a donor. So I am genuinely excited about this and I can't wait to see how it continues, and so that wraps up our discussion here on 3D printing and human tissue. We've got so much more to say. Guys, make sure you visit our website. It's, that's We take these topics and we really break them down in video format, in this audio podcast, and blog posts, and we really want to hear from you and what you are interested in and the sort of things that get you excited about the future, because this really needs to be a conversation. So make sure you join us, and we will talk to you again really soon.

Male Speaker 1: For more on this topic and the future of technology, visit Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places.

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Duration: 13 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: medicine, additive manufacturing, 3D printing, health