In HBO's TV show 'Westworld,' humanoid robots are 3D printed through means not totally explained by the show. While that may sound unrealistic, the technology to print human body parts already exists and may be a standard in the years to come.
The future of medicine may very well lie in a cold room at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston Salem, NC. That's where Dr. Anthony Atala is printing cells, bones and even organs on an 800 pound steel machine called 'ITOP', or Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System.
The ITOP is one of a kind. Instead of printing with ink, this 3D printer prints with human cells. The ITOP makes lab grown organs that will eventually be able to be surgically implanted into the body.
You're laying cells one layer at a time. The material is deposited onto the surface to create a three dimensional structure.
Dr. Atala explained that the process involves using the patient's own tissues. "We take a very small piece of their tissue. We then start to expand those cells outside of the body. We use those cells to create new tissues and organs that we can then put back into the body." The ITOP prints the customized scaffolding.
The ITOP can use data from CT and MRI scans to 'tailor-make' tissue for patients.
The fact that there's no risk of rejection makes Dr. Atala even more eager to get these lab grown structures to patients. According to Dr. Atala, the body will not reject the fabricated tissues because they are made out of the patients own tissue cells.
"You know I'm a surgeon and everyday I have to deal with my patients and the needs that they have. The best thing that we can do for our patients is to replace their defective tissues with their own tissues and that's what this technology is all about."
In a study published by Nature Biotechnology, Atala and a few other Wake Forest researchers admitted that cartilage, bone and muscle tissue printed on the ITOP had been successfully implanted in rodents. After monitoring the rodents for months, they noticed that the tissue had developed a system of blood vessels and nerves. The results pleasantly confirmed all their hard work.
The next step in testing will involve human patients. However, that will likely not happen for a few months or even years, pending government approval.
Dr. Atala and his team at Wake Forest have already printed human ears, bones, heart tissues, liver tissues and kidney tissues.
When Circa visited the Winston-Salem research center, the ITOP was working on an ear. It's made of biodegradable plastic that will eventually dissolve in the body after a year or two. They also print hydrogels with cells from the patient. They produce the cartilage tissue inside the pores seen in plastic.
Currently they are working on a total of 30 different tissues and organs.
They've already implanted eight different organs and tissues into patients.
We are already working on it to get them into patients as soon as we can.
All eight of the implanted tissues and organs were made by hand. The ITOP created parts have not been implanted into a human quite yet. That's because they are currently going through the regulatory process with the FDA. Dr. Atala is confident that their extensive testing will result in an eventual FDA approval. This way they can start to produce these tissues for anxious and needy patients.
Dr. Atala has been working on fabricating tissues and organs for 27 years. But in 2002, he started thinking big picture. He realized he needed to scale up and figure out how to automate the laborious process of making each structure by hand. So his team started designing and creating the first ITOP.
At the end of the day there's a patient out there with a need. Their life may be made better because of having an engineered tissue or organ.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of people that are patiently waiting receive a donor organ to replace their current diseased organ. This is what motivates Dr. Atala to continue to develop the ITOP and the organs it's building. There will be no need for a donor if Dr. Atala can help it.
In the decades ahead, ordering tissues or organs online may be possible.
With the way technology is moving, the HBO series Westworld may soon be reality.
The way science is moving, I think that pretty much every organ in the body will eventually, in the next several decades, be achievable.
While the regenerative medicine pioneer laughed at the possibility of eventually being able to print a whole human being like in Westworld, he does think that eventually any body part could be printed.
If you can think about it and imagine it and you don't have the tools to do it today...most likely you should have the tools to do it tomorrow.
Dr. Atala kept stressing that "in science you should never say never." He thinks the future technological possibilities are endless. At one point he even admitted that a human brain could be made by the ITOP one day. "It's a tough organ...but you should never say never," he added.