As per government sources, more than 107,000 people in the U.S. were waiting for an organ transplant in February 2021. Moreover, last year, merely 39,000 such surgeries were performed in the country. Due to such a staggering difference in the number of those who need organ transplants and those who ultimately get it, 17 people die each year in waiting. The reasons are aplenty; despite campaigns and awareness programs by government and international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organization (WHO), not many are willing to donate their organs.
For 3D bioprinting, the shape and size of the organ to be replaced inside the patient are obtained via a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. Thereafter, the scan is fed to computer-aided design (CAD) software for printing a 3D model. This is followed by the preparation of the bioink, which is essentially living cells mixed with a base like gelatin, collagen, silk, hyaluronan, nanocellulose, and alginate, which nourishes the cells and keeps them alive. Finally, the 3D model is broken into extremely thin layers by slicer software, which commands the 3D printer to create the organ from the bioink.
With years of extensive research and experimentation, 3D-printed organs, such as kidneys, hearts, lungs, pancreas, livers, and intestines, are becoming a reality. Similarly, 3D bioprinting can be used to create tissues or the individual parts of organs, such as heart valves and corneas, along with the skin, blood vessels, and bones. With the increasing incidence of chronic diseases, especially diabetes, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), cancer, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as severe cases of infection or injuries, the number of people requiring organ transplants is rising.
Another significant application of 3D bioprinting is cell culture, especially those of stem cells. Stem cells obtained from the ovaries, fetuses, embryos, and adults can differentiate themselves into many types of cells, tissues, and even complete organs, which is another way in which the dearth of transplantable organs can be addressed. For this purpose, 3D bioprinting is helping in the culture of stem cells with high throughput, for regenerating tissue. The bioink used in 3D printers is now being laden with stem cells, so that the desired tissue or organ can be created.
Since 3D bioprinting hasn’t yet been commercialized and is majorly in the research and development (R&D) phase, North America will continue to be the largest 3D bioprinting market in the years to come. The region is home to advanced healthcare infrastructure and numerous biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and healthcare research companies, which have been receiving heavy funding from government organizations. Moreover, due to the favorable reimbursement scenario, a large number of people opt for organ transplants. As the number of people in need of organ transplantation increases with the growing geriatric population and chronic disease incidence, the usage of 3D printing will rise as well.
Hence, with continuous R&D, the applications of 3D bioprinting will only widen in the years to come.