Crazy Heart

A 3D-printed heart could mean a new lease on life for many

In what appears to be an incredible medical breakthrough, a team of scientists from Tel Aviv University has created what could be the world’s first 3D-printed heart using human tissue and blood samples, by employing a bioprinting method. Until now, researchers have only been able to print simple tissues lacking blood vessels, so a 3D, fully engineered heart is a step in the right direction. The findings were published in Advanced Science journal.

To print the heart in 3D, researchers took a biopsy of tissue from a patient and separated its materials to form a hydrogel, which became the printing “ink”. After mixing the hydrogel with stem cells from the tissue, they were able to create a patient-specific heart that included blood vessels. The idea is that such a heart would be less likely to be rejected after a transplant.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in many countries worldwide. And a heart transplant is often the only treatment available to patients with end-stage heart failure. As for most organs, waiting lists for a donated heart can be very long. In the US, for example, recipients tend to wait at least six months and, sadly, many patients die while on the waiting list. Heart disease is to blame for one in four deaths in the US — that’s about 610,000 people a year. It’s encouraging to think how 3D-printed hearts could solve a major medical problem.

But despite the team’s feat, it could take years before such hearts can be used on humans. As a first step, the scientists in Tel Aviv plan to culture the printed hearts and then transplant them into animals.

Applications of 3D printing have come a long way from initial uses like rapid prototyping. Medical researchers have been employing 3D printing methods to create personalized joint replacements, orthopaedic implants and highly customized prosthetics. This is certainly the start of 3D bioprinting, and scientists around the globe are hoping to use the technique to print other body organs. It’s a coming together of science fiction and the medical community, and it underlines how important all aspects of health technology have become.