Playing God? The Facts of 3D Printing Human Organs

I think it is safe to say that when 3D printing was invented, it seemed it was heralding a new and exciting future where with the press of a button, you could print what ever you needed or wanted. Most of that vision has come to life relatively quickly (shoes, motors, guns, etc), and the market for 3D-printed objects is already worth $777 million. But other applications in the 3D printing world are taking much longer. One avenue of 3D printing is bio-printing, or in layman’s terms, printing technology used to create human tissue for medical uses.

For inanimate body parts, the technology has made successful giant leaps: an 83 year-old Dutch woman got a new jaw, Welsh doctors rebuilt a man’s face, and an American baby now has a fixed windpipe, all due to parts made by 3D printers. While printing incredibly specific parts of replacement bone and cartilage is totally do-able today, the challenge now comes with printing live organs.

Firstly, organs such as livers, kidneys, and even hearts are made of specific cells, all arranged in complicated layers and structures. This requires a higher level of programming, to get an anatomically correct product. However it can be done with the most basic inkjet printers, by just replacing the ink cartridges with live cells. While that difficult process can be, and has been, overcome, scientists then face a harder obstacle: these organs are made of live tissue, meaning the cells need a constant supply of blood. Our bodies do with this with thousands of capillaries, and the same must be done to create organs in the lab that last long enough to be used in transplants. Scientists have created working capillaries for the organs they have printedone university in China has created a small kidney that lasted four months. Printing organs is still very much still in the research stages, but scientists predict that in the next decade or so, fully-functioning organs could be available for transplants.

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Even if printed human organs could be used, this technology faces even more difficulties: getting through the FDA tests, getting investors for the long-term, etc. However, if successful, bio-printing organs would obviously revolutionize parts of the medical world. It may even “save the economy billions on a global scale, whilst boosting weak or war-torn countries’ access to more affordable health care and provision”. On the other side, in the early stages it may be too expensive for most to get a bio-printed transplant, which may make it difficult to make the innovation beneficial to the entire world. Either way, most groups are beginning to make organ tissue samples available for drug testing, taking out the need for animal testing. Organovo, pioneers in this field, “point out that the cost of drugs that fail is estimated at about 40 percent of all drug spending. ‘So if the drug spending is more than $50 billion per year, there is an opportunity to save more than $20 billion’”.

When 3D-printed organs become available there is no question it will change the face of medical technology forever. The bio-printing industry will most likely be worth $1.9 billion by 2025 and drive the entire 3D printing market to $8.4 billion, with medical, automotive, and aerospace industries taking up 84% of the market. Currently the bio-printing market is only a measly 1.5% of the 3-D printing market, but it is growing fast. The lines between man and machine are starting to blur even more and the questions of whether or not we are playing God may arise when this exciting technology is finally viable.

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5 thoughts on “Playing God? The Facts of 3D Printing Human Organs

  1. I think this is a really cool advancement in technology, but I am a bit unsettled by your comments about playing God. I mean, we’re helping people. But where do we draw the line? It’s along the same lines of wondering if it was a good or bad thing for Dr. Frankenstein to build his “monster.” These are literally man-made organs that they are trying to 3-D print, here.
    I, personally, think it is wonderful, economically and because I hope it will help a lot of people. I like that they want to make this into a more affordable form of healthcare, and that an industry that is worth $777 million and still growing is used for entertainment but also to benefit people’s lives. Sometimes that is not the case, so I cannot help but support this technology, in spite of the “playing God” dilemma.

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  2. I think this article is really interesting and the technology we have access to today just continues to blow my mind. I had heard about printing 3D organs but I did not believe that humans would be able to accomplish this. It’s weird to think that you can just put live cells in an ink cartridge and print a kidney. My aunt recently passed away from liver failure, and there are so many thousands of people on lists for organ transplants. I feel that if this resource is economical and achievable in the near future, it would have the potential to save so many lives. I agree with johnsotc in the sense that if we have access to this technology might as well use it!

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  3. I would love to know more about 3D printing organ’s market. For example for a firm, what are the costs of producing an organ? What would their revenue be? Since the demand is inelastic, the producers would have the majority of say in the price. I’m interested to know if it’d be cheap and accessible to poorer countries or would be a luxury of the upper class. Would insurance cover it? I could easily see this permanently transforming the medical world.

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  4. I am very curious about how this technology will be distributed in the future. As you mention, it may save the economy billions in the long run, when considering the cost of failed drugs. Thus, governments have an incentive to subsidize firms and research companies that develop 3D printing technologies. If this does happen, how accessible will this technology be? Will people of all socioeconomic standpoints have a feasible chance of receiving this technology? What about globally? Would United States’ companies share these technologies with medical universities in other countries, even if they may not reap the financial benefits 3D printing of organs may make possible for these countries? As for the U.S., how would insurance companies grapple with these technologies? Would insurance companies wait years until 3D printed organs proved to be very successful? Would they not cover people with preexisting conditions that may affect these organs in a negative way? While I am excited about the various possibilities that this technological development opens up, I am concerned about how this technology will be distributed, realistically.

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  5. I think that by 2025 if the projections of how developed this 3D printing are accurate it could easily exceed the 8.4 billion dollars. I think that this technology will revolutionize not only this specific market but also the way we perceive evolution itself. The fact that we can artificially reproduce our organs is mind blowing, and economically this will completely reconstruct the markets for medicine and human organs. I doubt that these printed organs will be accessible to the greater community initially because of price constraints. But I think that over time the producers of these printers and the people who know how to create artificial hearts will understand the importance of saving peoples lives and hopefully disregard the money aspect over longer periods of time.

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