3D printed liver tissue. Source: Organovo
3D printed liver tissue. Source: Organovo

Organovo, a bio-printing company in San Diego, is developing the world’s first working 3D printed liver. The company hopes to show the first printed organ by the end of 2014.

3D printing organs has proved unsuccessful so far because scientists have not yet been able to manufacture the vascular system, which provides organs with vital oxygen and nutrients. Without the vascular system, the organ eventually dies.

Organovo worked around the problem by bringing together fibroblasts and endothelial cells, which develop the vascular networks. In October 2013, the company announced that it had successfully bio-printed liver tissue that survived for 40 days.

"We have achieved thicknesses of greater than 500 microns, and have maintained liver tissue in a fully functional state with native phenotypic behavior for at least 40 days," said Mike Renard, Organovo's Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations.

Although Organovo has made a significant breakthrough in bio-printing, it will be years before the technology can be used for transplants. More research and clinical trials are needed and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would need to approve any bio-printed organs, a process that can take up to a decade. All of this research and approval will need to be done before patients can receive the first 3D printed organ transplants.

In the meantime, the bio-printed liver tissues can be used to test out potential medicine for diseases. By introducing disease to the 3D printed organ, medicine can be administered and its effects studied in a new, potentially more efficient way than traditional 2D cultures. 2D cultures typically only last for 48 hours, so the 40 day survival of the 3D printed liver tissue will provide scientists with more time to study the effects of disease and treatment.

But the future looks bright for bio-printing and there may be a day when patients will have their organs 3D printed with their own cells, which will prevent organ rejection and save lives by eliminating the need for lengthy wait-lists for suitable organ donors.