'Organ Printing' Could Drastically Change Medicine

ByABC News
February 10, 2006, 1:41 PM

Feb. 10, 2006 — -- What if the tens of thousands of people waiting for organ transplants in the United States didn't have to wait? What if burn victims could replace their scars with skin that was indistinguishable from their own? What if an amputee could replace an entire limb with one that felt, looked and behaved exactly as the original?

In what could be the first step toward human immortality, scientists say they've found a way to do all of these things and more with the use of a technology found in many American homes: an ink-jet printer.

Researchers around the world say that by using the technology, they can actually "print" living human tissue and one day will be able to print entire organs.

"The promise of tissue engineering and the promise of 'organ printing' is very clear: We want to print living, three-dimensional human organs," Dr. Vladimir Mironov said. "That's our goal, and that's our mission."

Though the field is young, it already has a multitude of names.

"Some people call this 'bio-printing.' Some people call this 'organ printing.' Some people call this 'computer-aided tissue engineering.' Some people call this 'bio-manufacturing,'" said Mironov, associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and one of the leading researchers in the field.

"It looks like every new guy who joins into this field tries to introduce a new term."

The commonly used term is "organ printing" and is simple in concept, but incredibly complex and challenging in its execution.

"What we do is we modify -- it's a regular ink-jet printer -- but we do not use the paper-feed mechanism, so basically we just have a cartridge moving back and forth and where the paper goes we put a petri dish," explained Thomas Boland, an associate professor at Clemson University.

Boland says that there is some liquid in the dish and that in place of ink cartridges are cartridges filled with cells and a "crosslinker."

The crosslinker is a chemical that causes the liquid in the petri dish to gel, giving the printer a soft but solid Jell-O-like surface to print the cells on.