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  • Society of Bioethics and Medicine

An Account on Having Your Organs Bioprinted

By - Jonathan Gao, Edited By - Ishraq Nihal


At this time, last year, very few of us regarded COVID-19 as something that would turn our lives completely upside down. Personally, I wanted to enjoy what would soon become the fleeting moments of my high school senior year. Everything abruptly changed as the virus began to surge in New York. Although all of us were required to stay home, I wasn’t content with sitting around while many workers, lacking adequate supplies of protective equipment, were left to deal with a society unprepared for the virus’s consequences. I quickly turned my hobby for 3D-printing into a duty to print and donate PPE for hospital personnel. Soon enough, the kitchen table became a workbench for assembling and packing face shields by the hundreds. Boxes filled to the brim were donated to the physicians and nurses dealing with supply shortages, for the paramedics transferring the ill to hospitals, and for the clinics serving local communities tirelessly.


Nevertheless, this highly-niche work represents only a fraction of what modern 3D technology is capable of providing for the healthcare sector. By employing additive manufacturing, the process of printing items layer by layer, orthodontists can manufacture dental appliances on-the-spot, pharmaceuticals can create medications with dosages adjusted to patients’ needs, and surgeons can design patient-specific organ models for pre-operative planning. Evidently, this technology is spurring on the creation of advanced medicine catered to the needs of its patients. However, there is no lack of concern surrounding the development of medicine adjusted to the needs of individuals.


Introduce 3D bioprinting, the “creation of living tissues, such as blood vessels, bones, heart or skin via the additive manufacturing technology of 3D printing” (The Medical Futurist, 2018). The inconceivable idea of artificially creating human organs is a practice that research facilities and medical centers are currently using bioprinters to experiment with. Bioprinters deposit a supply of living cells onto an organic “glue” scaffold, where the cells then adhere to each other and begin to resemble human tissue. Computer designs and models can dictate where the cells need to be and how they should be built up, giving the final product its personal touch to the patients who require them.


Although largely in its nascent, bioprinting can benefit the way people receive medical attention for organ failure, critical injuries, or aesthetic purposes. Nonetheless, the process of providing patients with personalized organs has raised numerous questions surrounding its safety, efficacy, and accessibility. Because the technology is untested, concerns of cancer, organ dislodgement, and irreversible side effects come with introducing foreign living cells that were made outside the body into a human. Furthermore, although bioprinting is capable of procuring new organs, only the wealthy may be able to afford the high price tag for the personalized organ and the suppressant drugs that follow. (Vermeulen, 2017)


A more interesting focus for 3D bioprinting is the question of “human enhancement” and “technological immortality”. Years from now, we may be able to supply hospitals with a renewable supply of printed hearts, lungs, and brains, but should we be able to have the privilege of creating bones that won’t shatter, lungs that have increased capacity, or muscles that are less prone to tearing?


“The debate about human enhancement is familiar to the context of elite sport where athletes have sought to use medical technology to extend their speed, strength, or endurance beyond what is ‘natural’ … In that context use of performance-enhancing drugs is considered to cheat other athletes, unbalancing the level playing field” (Dodds, 2015)


The potential for 3D bioprinting to revolutionize how we view healthcare is far-reaching. We may be able to eliminate dependence on organ donation by having vital organs conceptualized, modeled, and printed within the same day. Nevertheless, the costs associated with conducting further clinical research, the need to democratize this technology, and comprehensive FDA guidelines on how to regulate bioprinting use in humans all stand in the way of advancing healthcare to unprecedented levels. Overcoming these obstacles would be a major step towards turning what was once science fiction into a work of reality.





Reference(s):

Dodds, S. (2015, February 11). 3D printing raises ethical issues in medicine. ABC Science. https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2015/02/11/4161675.htm

The Medical Futurist. (2020, April 6). 3D Bioprinting - Overview of How Bioprinting Will Break Into Healthcare. https://medicalfuturist.com/3d-bioprinting-overview/

Vermeulen, N., Haddow, G., Seymour, T., Faulkner-Jones, A., & Shu, W. (2017, March 20). 3D bioprint me: a socioethical view of bioprinting human organs and tissues. Journal of Medical Ethics, 43(9), 618–624. https://doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2015-103347




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