3D printing technology produces functional liver tissue for pharmaceutical research

The idea of lab-grown organs has been a dream for scientists for many years. Instead of spending years on an organ donation list, patients could have new hearts, kidneys and livers tailor-made for them from scratch in the laboratory, precisely when they are needed. Such goals may still seem a long way off, but a San Diego-based company has taken a giant leap towards making this dream a reality.

Using a 3D printer, the regenerative medicine company Organovo have successfully produced tiny sections of liver tissue which look, feel and function just like human liver. They presented their findings at the Experimental Biology conference in Boston this week, suggesting that future versions of the system could produce large chunks of liver which could be used in medical transplants. It sounds like science fiction. So how does it work?

Just like a normal 3D printer, a series of lasers guide the construction of the product. But instead of being filled with printer ink or plastic, Organovo’s printer is loaded with existing liver cells collected from, for example, surgical waste, or donated livers unsuitable for transplant. The printer then deposits these cells one at a time into a 3D honeycomb-like formation, building up around 20 layers of hepatocytes and stellate cells (the two main types of liver cells). Cells from the lining of blood vessels are also added, and as this formation matures, it comes to form tissue which functions just like normal human liver.

At just 4 millimetres wide and half a millimetre deep, these ‘mini-livers’ are a far cry from a life-sized transplant for human use, but Organovo’s creations will prove revolutionary in pharmaceutical research. Researchers performing drug experiments on human tissue currently rely on flat, two-dimensional cultures, which have no more than one or two layers of cells. These cultures, however, are limited in their utility, as they do not function in the same way as real organ tissue. As a result, many early drug experiments produce results that would not be replicated in humans. Organovo’s 3D liver tissue addresses this problem, by providing a life-like environment which is able to accurately predict the toxicity of drugs and other substances. Not only do the mini-livers last much longer than the flat cell cultures, they are also able to produce albumin, the liver protein which transports salts, hormones and drugs around the body, as well as cholesterol and the detoxification enzymes (cytochrome P450s) which break down drugs in the liver. As such, Orgonovo predict that pharmaceutical drug testing on their three-dimensional tissue to be much more accurate than their two-dimensional predecessors.

Organovo has produced 3D tissue of other human structures before, such as blood vessels, but this is the first time they have taken on an organ as complex as the liver. The company hopes to begin selling the printed liver tissue to drug research companies as early as 2014. The next goal is to scale up the size of the liver tissue samples into a structure large enough to be transplanted into the human body, something which Organovo’s Chief Technology Officer Sharon Presnell believes is challenging, but not impossible. She said, ‘I’m not saying I’m going to give you an entire liver in a box, but I do believe we will see implantable liver tissue in my lifetime.’

Sources include New Scientist, KPBS, Organovo

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