Health Care, Tech, Science, Wellness, Now + Beyond

Need a liver transplant? Scientists could just print you one.

Scientists have been hard at work replicating the human body with other 3-D printed parts — from ears to skin to calcium phosphate.

As a liver transplant recipient,  I always try to stay abreast of what new technologies are available to people who need organ transplants. The whole process of being transplanted is emotionally and financially exhausting, and the problem of the demand is far exceeding supply. This disparity is continuing to rise each year, with the rise of disease and overall life expectancy.

I was transplanted when I was 16 years old after a three year long battle with end-stage liver disease and its accompanying demons. It is a time that inspires painful, hazy memories. I was constantly worried that I would not live,  that my struggling family wouldn’t be able to afford my care, and that there was no cure.

There is no cure for liver disease. It ends either in death or transplantation.

I was lucky enough to have my cousin as a live donor, but I think often of what would have happened to me if she had not been so generous and saved my life. The reality is that liver transplantation is still incredibly rare. I just might need another liver within the next three to eight years.

What will I do then? How will I get what I need when I am dying and there are no more options?

A company called Organovo is working to create a solution. They utilize 3D bioprinting to create liver tissue that can be used for drug testing safety and eventually, actual transplantation.

So what does this mean for patients waiting to be transplanted?

It means the hated transplant list, the one that determines who gets to live or die, can be eradicated.

It means people like me, who could never make it through the enormously taxing process of transplantation twice, can get their organs quicker, and therefore start living their lives again quicker. It means that parents of sick children no longer have to worry about whether their child is going to die soon or if they’ll be lucky enough to find a donor willing to give up a kidney or half of their liver.

Organovo has been on the cusp of bioprinting technologies for quite some time now, but bad management and a lack of investors have held the company back from making any real strides within the past decade. But that’s changing with the hiring of new CEO Taylor Crouch, who has been investing much of the company’s revenue into disease modeling services. They’re using the printed liver tissue to treat rare diseases, and eventually will be able to use that tissue to create whole livers.

Although the advent of entire bio-printed livers is still far down the line, like, after-my-lifetime down the line, the fact that the company seems to be making headway with their therapeutic liver tissue is a huge win.

The current treatment is incredibly expensive, and the only way to make it accessible is to continue to develop the generating process so that manufacturing is less involved.

Other companies, like the lesser-known startup Prellis Biologics, is focusing on building the vital capillaries that support the liver. Without these microvascular structures, there can be no functioning organ, only the tissue that Organovo has been creating. Companies like Allevi have driven the cost of bioprinting technologies down, but have yet to make its products effective enough to keep cells alive in an actual organ. Prellis is estimating that they will be able to transplant full bio-printed livers into human beings within the next five years, which is incredibly ambitious and amazing.

If I can live until then, just for another five years, there may be hope for me.

For people with a liver disease that isn’t end-stage, this information is a lifeline cast into an ocean of uncertainty. Bioprinting may be the future of medicine, but it also harbors the futures of people with terminal illnesses, and as it continues to gain traction, that future is beginning to look bright.