A collaboration between the University of Louisville and the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence promises the potential of producing new hearts from a patients own cells within a decade.

Earlier this month, a baby’s life was saved when a custom designed 3D printed splint created at the University of Michigan restored his breathing. From the New England Journal of Medicine this story went on to inspire headlines around the globe, and 3DPI’s latest writing team member, Evan Chavez, covered it here.

“Bio-printing is pretty much done everywhere, our ultimate goal is increasing the number of patients who get organs.” Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina has told media.

3D printing tissues and organs from patients’ cells can eliminate the danger of rejection. This may be a decade away though, as researchers face highly technical challenges, such as replicating the complexity of blood vessels.

Stuart Williams is the researcher working on the amazing prospect of a bio-printed heart. With altruistic motives inspired by personal experience, he explained: “This was what killed my dad. My dad was in congestive heart failure.”

He and other scientists have been studying medical applications of additive manufacturing technology since the 1990s. Williams, who worked at the University of Arizona before moving to the University of Louisville in 2007, said his team there received money from the U.S. Department of Defense to use 3D printing to create a lymph node, which lead to a 3D printer called the BioAssembly Tool.

In 2003, Williams won an R&D 100 Award for his work, which has resulted in $30 million worth of bio-printing work. Williams’ main interest is creating blood vessels, cardiac structures and, then, ultimately, full working hearts for transplant.

In 2007, the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute received a USD$2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop the printing technology, which researchers used at the time to organize tissue grown in the lab to build networks of small blood vessels using mice and rats. Their work has continued since.

Williams has suggested that the 3D printed heart would already be a cheaper alternative to current alternatives, costing around USD$100,000, with a further USD$150,000 or so in hospital and surgery costs.

“I think this will have an incredible effect on trauma patients… You can imagine printing a jaw, printing muscle cells, printing the skin. Ultimately I see it being used to print replacement kidneys, to print livers, and to print hearts — and all from your own cells.”

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