Wyss Institute Researchers Continue to Advance Organ Engineering Through 3D Bioprinting

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An organ transplant is a pretty miraculous procedure on its own, and its development and continuing improvement has enormously benefited its recipients. More than 30,000 people receive transplants each year in the United States alone, but unfortunately, according to the National Kidney Foundation, a further 120,000 are in dire straits as they await a life saving transplant, with an average of 20 people per day dying because they are unable to get the transplant they need. A single organ donor can save up to eight lives, with the donation of their kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, pancreas, and intestines.

While nearly 45% of American adults are registered to be organ donors, the grim fact is that they have to die in order to provide their organs to others, and there simply aren’t enough deaths of people whose organs are fit for transplant in order to fulfill the need. Neither can the demand be met through living donors who are able to donate a kidney or a lung, or a piece of liver, intestine, or pancreas. Instead, the dream exists in the research community that at some point it won’t be necessary to wait for a tragedy for one person in order to prevent a tragedy for another, through the creation of organs from the ground up.

There have been rumors in the 3D printing community for some time now, whispers of breakthroughs that could lead to the growing or 3D printing of new organs, and, of course, the sci-fi and conspiracy communities have been thinking about this for decades. But actual strides are being made in the field of organ engineering which are bringing the future of organ creation closer to the realm of possibility. A multi-disciplinary team composed of researchers in tissue engineering, 3D biofabrication, biomaterials design, and stem cell differentiation at Harvard’s Wyss Institute are steadily working to build on their success creating a functioning kidney subunit with current work to build the branched vascular networks unique to each organ.

This image shows an encapsulated single cell rendered in three dimensions. The greenish-blue colored part in the middle is the cell nucleus; the yellow color represents the cell’s cytoskeleton; and the purple on the outside is the thin hydrogel layer that encapsulates the cell. The new microfluidic-enabled method for encapsulating single cells could pave the way for more effective cell therapies and precise tissue engineering capabilities. [Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]

Their efforts focus on the creation of the cells and subunits that can later be used to generate complete organs, so there are no kidneys coming off the printers just yet. The advanced 3D bioprinting capabilities available at the Wyss Institute have already allowed team members such as Dr. Jennifer Lewis’ organs-on-chips to be created, using special polymer inks for the creation of structures made up of human cells, complete with vasculatures and extracellular matrices. These organ-imitating tissues have provided tantalizing insights into what might be in store as researchers continue to work towards the creation of viable human organs. The team has its desired work plan before it:

“After having established organ-specific vascular networks, the research team will work to develop additional methods and tools that may integrate other specialized cell types like those present in the connective tissue that provide cohesion and stability to an organ, and the cell types that perform the actual organ-specific functions, like blood filtration in the kidney, metabolism in the liver, or contraction of the heart. During that process, the engineered and induced blood vessels that reach into the depths of the 3D tissue constructs act to support the more complex nascent tissue with its cell-type specific requirements for oxygen and nutrients as well as factors cells need for their differentiation and survival.”

While people have been predicting the creation of engineered organs to be on the horizon, there is still a great deal of ground to be covered before they can have been said to be successfully created. And, of course, after their creation there is the consideration of the specifics of their use in transplants. So, while the advances being made are exciting and the potential for engineered organs is real, in the meantime, why not become an organ donor? It’s simple and while we here at hope that you live a long, healthy, happy life, if a tragedy should strike, think of the legacy you would leave behind you and the lives you could aid to unfold in front of others.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below.

[Source/Images: Wyss Institute at Harvard University]


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