Fifty percent of people who have a severe heart attack die within five years. We lack the tools and medical knowledge to save them. This is a crisis of unparalleled proportions, one that has resulted in heart disease is becoming the leading cause of death in the Western world, killing more people than every kind of cancer combined. And unfortunately, the numbers are just as dire in other corners of the world.
In 2008 alone, 7.3 million people died of coronary heart disease globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that this number will increase to more than 8.2 million by 2030 — unless we act now.
Tal Dvir, a Medical Professor at Tel Aviv University, has come up with a rather novel solution to this crisis, and it comes in the form of 3D-printed human hearts that are made from an individual’s own biomaterials.
A new beat
At the Boma France Campfire, Dvir noted that, currently, a heart transplant is the only option for people who have severe heart failure, and he added that this option is as limited as it is risky. “As we all know, there is a shortage in heart donors, and even when we do manage to find donors, there is a risk that the patient will reject the new heart,” Dvir said. In fact, donor organs are in such short supply that, on average, 18 Americans die each day waiting on a transplant. Proportional figures are seen in other nations as well. In the United Kingdom, for example, over 400 people died last year while they were waiting for a transplant.
As a result, being able to 3D-print a human heart exactly when it is needed could save a number of lives and, perhaps one day, even bring an end to waiting lists. And by coupling this procedure with new advances that allow us to integrate a patient’s own unique biomaterials, we could significantly decrease instances of rejection.
These “on-demand human organs” sound like something out of a science fiction novel. Or at least, like something that is decades, if not centuries, away. However, earlier this year, Dvir and his team announced that they had created the world's first 3D-printed heart using human cells.
For their research, they created a kind of "bioink," and used it to 3D-print the organ. Dvir explained that, to help overcome issues with rejection, they developed a procedure that allows them to engineer tissues from the patients’ own building blocks i.e. from their individual cells. And by incorporating nano- and microelectronics into the tissues, they can also monitor the function of the organ and intervene when necessary. For example, if a doctor notices that a patient’s heart is not beating as it should, they can provide electrical stimulation remotely in order to get it functioning properly.
A question of choice
The team still has some work to do, but Dvir stated that the research is progressing rapidly. “There are some challenges left, but we should be able to carry out the first animal tests in 2021,” he said, adding that, in as little as 10 years, there could be organ printers in hospitals around the world.
Dvir was quick to note that the applications for this work extend well beyond heart disease, and that these printers won’t just be printing hearts. “In the lab, we engineer other tissues as well, such as spinal cord implants to regenerate the injured spinal cord and dopaminergic implants to treat Parkinson’s disease. We also engineered a retina and even a bionic intestine,” Dvir said. And by incorporating nanoelectronics into these designs, Dvir stated that it may be possible to imbue our various tissues and organs with novel abilities. We could, for example, improve our vision, make our vital organs stronger, optimize our digestive processes, or even optimize our brains — and all in a way that is tailored to our unique biological makeup.
Dvir, for one, is hopeful. “Bionic organs are still considered futuristic things,” he said, “but I truly believe that, in 50 years, people will be walking around with different bionic organs that can provide regulation over their function, and even endow them with enhanced capabilities.”
Philippe Marlière, a research Director at the Institute of Systems and Synthetic Biology at Genopole, spoke up, asking what such biotechnologies mean for the future of humanity. In particular, he noted that problems may arise when it comes to the continual monitoring of biometric data. “I’m not so sure it’s such a wonderful future,” he noted.
Dvir acknowledged that, when it comes to medical data, privacy and security are paramount concerns, and he emphasized that governments and other regulatory agencies must be prepared to respond to the risks that comes with these new technologies. But in the end, he stated that, when it comes down to it, such organs could save many lives, and it will be “everyone’s personal choice whether they want [the transplants] it or not.”