For someone with kidney disease who needs a transplant, it can take three to five years (and, in some parts of the country, even longer) before an organ is available. Patients on the waiting list for a pancreas can wait two years; the wait for a heart can take months. In the near future, a custom organ could be made for a patient within weeks–using a 3D printer and time in a lab.

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“It is estimated that every 30 seconds, a patient dies from a disease that could be treated with tissue replacement,” says Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “There are simply not enough donor tissues and organs to meet demand. Regenerative medicine offers the hope of engineering replacement organs in the lab to help solve this shortage. Because these organs would be made with a patient’s own cells, there would be no issues with rejection as there are with organs from donors.”

Bioengineers from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have spent more than a decade developing a system for 3D-printing tissues and organs that could eventually be used in transplants.

Like other 3D printers, the equipment developed by the researchers prints materials in precise layers. But instead of using plastic or metal, the machine uses gels filled with cells and a biodegradable, plastic-like material that holds the tissue in a specific shape. A lattice of tiny, capillary-like channels in the structure takes in nutrients and oxygen when the tissue is implanted, so it stays alive.

In 2016, the researchers announced that they had successfully 3D-printed a baby-sized human ear, a jawbone, and muscle tissue. After implanting them in lab animals, the body parts survived–something that hadn’t happened in many previous attempts to make 3D-printed tissue–and actually grew. The ear began to grow blood vessels after a month.

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