IU School of Medicine testing 3-D printed organs

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INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana University School of Medicine researchers are using 3-D printers to create organs that could one day be used to revolutionize the world of organ transplant. 

The research is led by Dr. Burcin Ekser, Assistant Professor of Surgery at IU School of Medicine. Dr. Ekser is also a transplant surgeon at IU Health Hospitals and says he’s inspired by his patients everyday. 

“We see these families suffer,” said Dr. Ekser. “We don’t want anyone to suffer on the waiting list or die while waiting for organs. That’s the entire research that we can provide one day, even if it’s the far future, an unlimited supply of organs.”

It starts with a 3-D printer called Regenova by Cyfuse, nicknamed “Rege.”

3-D printers create objects by filling the “ink jet needles” with lengths of plastic or long-coiled metal wires. One layer at a time, the printer adds more plastic or metal to the base, building a 3-D shape from a computer blueprint. “Rege” manufactures in the same way, but with genetically engineered balls of cells, called spheriods. 

“It picks up each one of those spheriods, or balls of cells, and puts it on what we can call the world’s smallest shish kebab machine,” explained Dr. Lester Smith, manager of the bioprinting core. “It puts them onto this shish kebab, and then these shish kebabs. They contact one another and they fuse.” 

The “shish kebab” is a grid of spikes that hold the balls of cells in place. After they’ve been lined up next to each other, Dr. Smith explains the tissue is then put in an incubator, where the cells fuse together, creating a solid organ. The balls of cells originally come from a pig and are genetically engineered by Dr. Ping Li, another researcher on the team. The research team has tested the organs for functionality, and discovered they actually work. 

“The ultimate goal would be printing a transplantable organ. However the technology is not there yet,” said Dr. Ekser, explaining they’ve done work on kidneys, liver, lungs and skin. “The human-size organs are not in our reach yet.” 

The research team has created mice-sized organs and the next step would be to tranplant the organ into a mouse and test its functionality. If all goes well, Dr. Ekser hopes to see 3-D printed organs for humans in the next few decades. 

“Because of the shortage of organs, we need emergency transplantable organs for everyone. The closest one, the most promising one, is genetically-engineered pigs,” he said. 

Pig organ research is several years ahead of 3-D organ printing, with clinical trials of genetically-engineered pig organ transplants into human bodies beginning in 2019-2020, according to the Food and Drug Association. 

But Dr. Ekser says that’s not a fast or cost-effective way to transplant. Human donors are good, pigs may be better, but 3-D printing could be best. 

“Someone then, if he needs a replacement of any organ, can go to the hospital and print their own organ and get whatever they want,” said Dr. Ekser. 

“Rege” is only the second scaffold-free 3-D bioprinter in an academic institution in the county, according the IU School of Medicine. 

Others have joined in to support their research; Thursday IU School of Medicine announced a $9 million sponsored research agreement from Lung Biotechnology PBC, a Maryland-based company focused on new organ transplantation technologies, including through xenotransplantation, or transplantation between species. 

If you are interested in becoming an organ donor, click here.

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