Be Still, My Bioficial Heart

Scientists believe they can create a fully functioning 3-D printed heart Desmond Boylan/Reuters

Scientists could be on the brink of creating a real-life Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. Last month, researchers at the University of Louisville announced that they may soon create what they call a "bioficial heart." The team, led by cell biologist Stuart Williams, will use living cells from a potential transplant patient combined with artificial materials to create a fully functional 3-D printed heart. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, says that this type of combination 3-D printing could revolutionize the way complex organs are integrated into the bodies of transplant recipients.

"The potential benefits include accessibility and availability," says Atala. "More patients who need these organs will have access to them. There may be less chance of rejection.... There is less likelihood of diseases that could be transmitted."

This process involves laying down several layers of material in order to create three-dimensional objects. It can be used to create almost anything imaginable, and the implications for medicine are staggering. The technique has already been used to create prosthetic limbs for amputees and artificial bones to help mend severely broken ones; two months ago, surgeons in the Netherlands successfully implanted a 3-D printed skull into a 22-year-old woman.

But 3-D printed organs come with unique challenges. As public policy attorney David Rosen points out, it could be years or even decades before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves lab-built organs for patients. Even if the process of manufacturing bioficial organs is perfected, it will take a number of clinical trials, and extensive research done on all possible patient reactions, before the FDA approves transplants using such organs.

"The potential challenges include demonstrating that the organs will function as predicted, demonstrating the sustainability of these organs once transplanted and obtaining approval to test and market these from [the] FDA," says Rosen. It may still be years away, but the potential for getting life-saving 3-D organs to patients in critical need is still awesome. It's not quite a bionic man, but it's pretty close.