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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Black Market Organs vs Printed Organs

Later this year, manufacturer Organovo, of San Diego, will begin shipping its $200,000 ink-jet-type printers that create living organs for patients needing transplants. The 3-D "bioprinter" works by spraying extracted microscopic cells on top of each other, in pass after pass. On the bioprinter's equivalent of a sheet of paper, and under laboratory conditions, the cells fuse together and grow for weeks until an organ substantial enough for research use is created (and ultimately, substantial enough for human transplants). The bioprinter is faster than growing such organs from scratch, which scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have been doing for several years. [The Economist, 2-18-10]

This is so much better than black market kidneys!

3D printers are a newer technology. I'll have to do a post about this for Science in Fiction, but really, this isn't something I have ever seen in a book. I should have, this is definitely sci-fi territory, but it's new to me.

The lab uses bioink (literally liquid-like clumps of cells) harvested or created from harvested tissue. This means you won't run the risk of rejecting the new organ. Recipients won't have to worry that the organ donor lied about their health, or that the hospital accidentally inserted an infected organ into their body a la Bones. You'll have a fresh organ to replace the broken one.

There are probably other risks, like random cell mutation. I'm guessing the cells are checked and cleaned before they are used to print the new organ. There's no point in stripping out a liver with cancer just to insert a new liver with cancer.

And the cost will probably be astronomical to start. Still, this is promising.

Stretch the idea out and look at the possibilities. Printed meat to save the animals? Is printed muscle vegan or not? How about infant mortality, a child born with a hole in their heart can now have a new one ready and waiting. Or clones... oh my word... CLONES! Why stop at printing an organ when you can print yourself a nice army, a cute kid, or a perfect spouse? Well, physically perfect, the printer doesn't make any promises about personality.

If you'd like to learn more about the printer there are articles here, here, and here.

If you'd like to learn more about the black market organ trade (my brain is buzzing with ideas here) Michele Goodwin has a book entitled Black Markets: Supply and Demand of Body Parts. You find the book here on Indiebooks and the author's bio here.


  1. Very cool! It does get the brain ticking doesn't it? So should people who intentionally ruin their organs through drinking, smoking, etc have their organ replacements covered by insurance? Will people be more careless knowing they can just buy a new organ? hmmm

    And I thought ink jet ink was overpriced. I'd hate to see what this kind of ink costs.

  2. What a nifty scientific breakthrough. I bet we hear more about this in the future.

    And if I were the god in that particular machine, I'd have the cells used for the organ 'printing' be culled from the recipient's bone marrow, T cells, or cord blood if available. Cord blood would be best from what I know of such things. (So people automatically have their cord blood frozen at birth for future medical use. Seems practical and likely in a futuristic society that is highly organized.)

    And I suppose that cloning technology would make it simple enough to brew up a batch of appropriate cells for the organ.

    Thanks for sharing this; totally cool idea!

  3. Jean - I'm not sure how it will fit into our current system. Cost plus some, I imagine. But it would be nice if you were in a car accident and the organ could be fixed. Or had a heart attack and could replace the damaged parts.

    The bit about "printing in the patient" from the video is a little creepy though. I'm picturing athletes with a third lung or something.

    Written- I think we'll hit a point where cord blood is automatically saved for infants. It's such a wonderful source of clean cells. Right now it's too costly, I'd like to see saving cord blood become something that's insured. They keep the cord blood, when you die, the family can choose to dump or give to medical research.

  4. This reminds me of the movie The Fifth Element when they were "printing" Milla Jovovich's body back to life.
    Wow, never would I have imagined how close to that we really are. Thanks for posting!