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3D-printed partial liver transplants targeted for 2020

Lucas Mearian | March 28, 2017
3D-printed liver "patches" could extend the life of transplant patients for a year or two


In as little as three years, patients awaiting a liver transplant may be able to donate healthy cells and have them replicated through a 3D printer into a dollar-sized piece of tissue that can extend their lives.

San Diego-based bio-printing company Organovo has already shown that its 3D printed liver tissue patches have continued to function when implanted into mice. Next step: human beings.

The 10-year-old company developed a bioprinting process that can be tailored to produce tissue in a variety of formats, including micro-scale human liver tissue and, most recently, kidney tissue.

Organovo's 3D printed tissue has been used to accelerate the pre-clinical drug testing and discovery process. Traditional testing and development uses animal or a small sample of human cells placed in a petri dish, can cost on average $1.2 billion and take a dozen years. The cost is high, in part, because 90% of drugs do not pass animal and human clinical trials, so researchers must go back to the proverbial drawing board again and again until they succeed.

Organovo's bioprinting technology better models how human tissue reacts to drugs and helps identify toxic drugs before they enter clinical trials; the tissue is printed 20 layers thick and includes functioning blood vessels, which more accurately mimics real human tissue.

"When you take liver cells and put them on a petri dish, those never have all the aspects of normal human liver biology because they're taken out of their normal context and put into that dish... and liver cells are much more unhappy than most cells in that environment," said Organovo CEO Keith Murphy.

The major stumbling block in creating tissue continues to be manufacturing the vascular system needed to provide it with life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients. Living cells may literally die before the tissue gets off the printer table.

24 well liver tissues 
Organovo’s bioprinting process can be tailored to produce tissues in a variety of formats, including these micro-scale human liver tissues contained in standard multi-well tissue culture plates for drug testing. Credit: Organovo

Organovo's ExVive 3D bioprinted human liver and kidney tissues are being touted as a breakthrough for drug safety and development.

The bioprinting technology, which first saw commercial use in late 2014, creates the tissue and a network of capillary blood cells in the organ tissue in order to transport life-giving blood, better mimicking live organs. The vessels are made up of three different cell types stacked about 20 layers deep or about 500 microns thick. First comes a layer of human fibroblasts, then a 250-micron layer of human vascular smooth muscle cells and then a thin coating of human vascular endothelial cells.


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