Living on Earth: Science Note--New Organs on Demand

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The multi-arm bio-printer (photograph: Yin Yu, University of Iowa)

This month, University of Iowa researchers announced a breakthrough in bioengineering.  In this week’s Note on Emerging Science, Naomi Arenberg reports that the first multi-arm bio-printer might be able to create new organs.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Just ahead, tides ebb and flow like clock-work twice a day - but that doesn't ensure smooth sailing for tidal power. First here's this note on emerging science from Naomi Arenberg.


ARENBERG: A breakthrough in printer technology could make it possible for scientists to manufacture human organs in the laboratory. These bio-printers rely on mechanisms that resemble the old dot-matrix system, except that, instead of spraying dots of traditional ink, they spray “bio-ink.” That’s a solution of living cells and a thick liquid biomaterial that helps the cell grow into living tissue, once printed onto a surface. A container of this “bio-ink” is fastened to the end of a printer “arm,” which scans back and forth to print a row of dots on each pass.

The bio-printer is not a new idea, but now a new design by University of Iowa engineers enables specific tissue cells to be printed alongside blood vessel cells so fast, it’s almost simultaneous. This means that those tissue-specific cells can grow and develop with their own blood vessels, ensuring a flow of nutrients to the fragile, young tissue and hastening its development.

What makes this possible is a double-arm printer. Until now, printers had only one arm, which laid down only a single line of bio-ink. The research team hopes to print human organs for transplant within five to 10 years. One of the first of these could be a pancreatic organ that could be implanted anywhere in the body to regulate glucose level. Now that people are living longer, the demand for replacement organs is far out-pacing supply. Perhaps the laboratory will be able to help fill the gap.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Naomi Arenberg.