3D-Printed Hearts Just Around the Corner

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, claiming one in three lives. New bioprinting technology may solve this problem soon.

Making patient-specific, fully functioning hearts that are viable for transplant, using the patient’s own cells is the promise.

What is Possible

Inside a lab soon to open in the US, a biotech startup will soon begin perfecting the process of 3D-printing human hearts that could eventually be used in transplants.

The 3D Organ Printing Process

The process combines several steps that have been developed by various researchers in university labs.

    • Step 1 - A patient’s heart will be scanned using an MRI machine to create a digital image of the heart’s shape and size.
    • Step 2 - Doctors take a blood sample.
    • Step 3 - Using recently developed techniques, the blood cells will be converted into stem cells–and then converted a second time into heart cells.
    • Step 4 - The new heart cells will be combined with nutrients in a hydrogel to make a “bio-ink” that can be used in a specialized 3D printer.
    • Step 5 - Printing one layer at a time, with a biodegradable scaffolding to keep everything in place, the cells can be formed into the exact shape of the patient’s original heart. The printed heart is really a combination of individual cells in proper places
    • Step 6 - The newly printed heart is then moved to a bioreactor to strengthen it. Amazingly, within a couple of days, new heart cells outside a body will begin to self-assemble and join together.
    • Step 7 - When the heart is strong enough, technicians will raise the temperature to melt the scaffolding around the cells and start beating.

    The new heart can then be transplanted–and because it is the exact size of a patient’s original heart, and made from the patient’s own cells, it has a greater chance of success than a traditional transplant.

    In studies, other researchers have successfully transplanted stem cells in both humans and animals without the need for anti-rejection drugs.

    Less Chance of Rejection

    Most people who receive heart transplants now don’t live more than a decade. Their body may reject the organ directly. The drugs they take to suppress their immune system–in an attempt to prevent the body from rejecting the foreign organ–may also make them unable to fight off another disease, such as cancer. In contrast, won’t require patients to take immunosuppressant drugs since it is an exact genetic match.

    Shorter Waiting Lists

    Few hearts are currently available for transplant, so the majority of people on waiting lists never have a chance for surgery at all. If hearts can be made from scratch, there will no longer be a lack of supply.

    Immediate Plans

    Some challenges require more time including how to successfully create tiny blood vessels in the new hearts.

    The team aim to perfect “mini hearts” in 2018. These mini hearts can be used to test new drugs, reducing reliance on animal testing, which is a poor proxy for how something will perform in humans.

    After making mini hearts, the team will create and test hearts in small animals, then larger animals, and eventually, humans.