Technology Isn’t Just For The Good Guys: What Happens When Black Marketeers Start Churning Out Bioprinted Organs?


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Thousands around the world await kidney transplants.

Thousands around the world await kidney transplants.

Allowing people to become desperate is a very dangerous thing. Yet, as economies suffer and governments fail at helping their citizens sufficiently—whether they could or not—many individuals are forced to turn to crime around the globe. While some individuals would rather turn to crime in any case it would seem, rather than putting in the effort to live legitimately, for those who have nothing left to lose in life, operating outside of the law goes far beyond morals and just points to survive.

The black market thrives on such desperation. And while there are simply countless illegal and untaxed business operations running around the world that are actually now contributing necessary trillions to the world economy today, many ‘businesses’ of course have more serious criminal and ominous intent, from peddling hard drugs and guns—to dealing in selling people through human trafficking. And then, of course, there are the horror stories, elevated to urban legend status, of human organs being bought, sold, and stolen.

Daily, if I don’t write about the future of bioprinting and the possibility that scientists see in the very near future for 3D printing human organs, then I am probably still thinking about it. While so far researchers have been able to make 3D printed blood vessels, scaffolding for cartilage growth, as well as many many other incredible examples such as 3D printed liver tissue and kidney tissue, it’s predicted that the actual fabrication of human organs could begin as soon as this next year. We often discuss how wonderful it will be when so many patients no longer have to worry about that waiting list, with people dying in the interim, as they will be able to look forward to customized organs made from their own cells and no worries even about rejection. 3D printed human organs are a reality; it’s just a matter of when they will be produced and transplanted into humans with success.

3D printed ear cartilage from the Wake Institute for Regenerative Medicine

3D printed ear cartilage from the Wake Institute for Regenerative Medicine

What we do not talk about much presently, however, is the true daily terror and suffering felt by people who are on those waiting lists today, and how they are surviving. Or not. According to the US-headquartered UNOS, right now 119,853 people need lifesaving transplants. Within that number, 77,157 are actively on the waiting list.

“Every ten minutes, someone is added to the national transplant waiting list. On average, 22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant. One organ donor can save eight lives,” states UNOS.

While most of us are fortunate enough not to need an organ transplant, if you know someone with a failing organ who is on the list, then you have had an introduction to the sadness, sickness, and incredible fear that they live with, not to mention the health insurance issues (even if they are covered) and many other medical expenses. If your loved one was on the verge of dying while the waiting list just dragged on and on, you might consider other avenues. And many do, around the world, with a frightening barrage of stories about organs being harvested under both criminal and more organized (and willing donor) circumstances. Asia—especially China—has been in the spotlight for years regarding this subject, as the Chinese government has been under fire for taking organs from prisoners, especially those executed.

As we consider how black market operations are run for buying and harvesting organs from individuals who are willing to give up, say, a kidney for money, it’s important to note that those in charge of handling the surgeries are quite well set up. They have connections for handling pre-op procedures, a surgical setting, and numerous venues for each phase of the deal, from taking blood to surgery to post-op. The people involved have knowledge and skill, and it may be more profitable for them to work in black market trade than a regular job, most likely, and depending on the country.

It’s also certainly likely that those working in the shadows already know about bioprinting and are either training medical professionals or looking to hire those with knowledge. 3D printing, for all its magic and association, has attracted not only designers, engineers, and manufacturers worldwide, but also savvy criminals. We’ve seen 3D printed fake plastic card slot bezels to be installed on ATMs, a melee of guns raising questions, and of course, there was a famous drug bust in Australia that yielded a 3D printed weapon and started an avalanche of arrests as well as big headlines.

When you note that 3D printers are being carried away from crime scenes, that makes a clear point. So it’s only logical that in a black market industry capable of yielding copious amounts of cash already for something like kidneys, what if black marketeers could start 3D printing many different organs and begin supplying them under the table to citizens internationally? Certainly this is not a new idea for those working alternative routes. The technology and the technique is already very close to completion.

Companies such as Organovo are already famous for their strides in creating 3D printed kidney tissue.

Companies such as Organovo are already famous for their strides in creating 3D printed kidney tissue.

“The issue will not be whether these technologies can solve [medical problems], or whether it’s affordable or whether it’s disruptive enough,” Dr. Bertalan Mesko, medical futurist and author of My Health Upgraded: Revolutionary Technologies to Bring A Healthier Future said in a recent interview with Wired. “The question is how the bad guys will find ways to use [these technologies] in unsafe, unregulated ways.”

The key of course will be for the good guys to beat the bad guys to the punch, and although most researchers already seem to have a pretty good fire lit underneath them to be the first to produce a bioprinted organ that can actually be used for transplant, this issue may be further motivating. If bioprinted organs can soon be provided to the public economically and with great access, much of the activity going on underground could potentially be halted.

“If bioprinting becomes a mainstream method, then actually anyone could have access to the technology for quite a good price. If you can print out organs based on that patient’s own stem cells in a short amount of time, it will become a normal element of healthcare, and then there’s no reason to print [organs] in a criminal way,” said Mesko.

“Patients who have no good insurance plan or have no access to these innovations in poorer countries might turn to these guys. They want to walk again, but they cannot afford the [approved] methods… There is a niche for criminal gangs.”

And while it would be nice to have a Pollyanna approach and think that all governments will hop right on board with offering expedient and affordable organ transplants as soon as bioprinting them becomes feasible and safe, it’s far more likely that criminals will indeed grasp onto the technology without need for medical regulation and begin producing knock-offs. And while having one of those inserted into your body might sound odious if you are healthy and not in need, try to imagine being at death’s door with that as your only alternative. The human spirit can be incredibly strong and the will to survive extremely surprising, often without care for rules, laws, or regulations.

“[An imperfect solution] is better than nothing at all,” says Mesko. “But when it comes to your own health, you won’t like risking it if you know there are fairly good, affordable solutions out there. Today, the reason why some patients risk their lives with the illegal organ market is because they either get it this way, or they die. That’s quite a clear choice.

“The majority of us will get access to these technologies through traditional healthcare systems if regular frameworks are fast enough. But for the rest, they will [always] try to find a solution.”

As bioprinters and materials become more available, along with ways to learn how to use them and innovate beyond what we have now, it’s going to be very interesting to see how everyone uses them in terms of creating cellular structures. The greatest goal, of course, is to whittle down that transplant waiting list, see less people hooked up to dialysis machines around the clock, and allow people to shed the illness and anxiety they are faced with every day. Discuss further over in the Black Market Bioprinting forum at

[Source: Wired]

Researchers at Organovo bioprinting cellular structures.

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