Cardiovascular disease is the world’s leading cause of death. Heart transplants are often the only option available for patients in the worst cases. But the number of heart donors is limited and too many patients die while waiting.
What if hospitals could simply print out a new heart?
That’s the tantalizing promise that Tel Aviv University researchers made this week with the announcement that they had successfully used a 3D bio-printer to create a heart complete with human tissue and blood vessels.
While the university called it a “major medical breakthrough” that advances the possibilities for transplants, this 3D-printed heart still has some thumping limitations.
First, it’s only the size of a rabbit’s heart. Journalists who attended the press event in Tel Aviv were shown a 3D print of a heart that looked more like a cherry, immersed in liquid.
Second, the cells in the 3D heart can contract, but don’t yet have the ability to pump. Researchers must now figure out how to teach the printed hearts to behave like real ones.
This is not the first heart to be 3D printed, but never before has it resulted in an organ “with cells or with blood vessels,” said Tal Dvir, who led the project at Tel Aviv University’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology.
Previously, scientists in the emerging field of regenerative medicine have been able to print cartilage and aortal valve tissue, but not the capillaries without which the organs cannot survive, let alone function properly.
Dvir said the researchers’ next steps would be to transplant a 3D-printed heart into an animal model. Their aim is for that to happen sometime in the next year.
“Maybe, in 10 years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely,” Dvir added, although he expected hospitals would likely start with simpler organs than hearts.