Just a few months ago GFR reported on advances in bioprinting or the 3D printing of tissues, bones, cells, and other body parts, and how scientists were on the verge of achieving the ultimate goal of creating viable organs. Scientists are now one step closer—they’re 3D-printing mini livers and creating bionic pancreases.
MIT’s Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies, has created tiny human livers. They contain approximately one million cells and resemble contact lenses in appearance. This isn’t the first time scientists have 3D-printed a human liver, but the MIT team has refined techniques for doing so. Bioprinting involves building an organ layer by layer, and instead of the literal, physical printing out of each layer, Bhatia’s team has been experimenting with building layers with light-sensitive materials. The specific technique depends on the organ, and the liver is a bit of an anomaly because of its ability to regenerate without a stem cell. This raises the question of whether livers could be prompted to generate, once a base is printed.
Right now, the mini-livers are most useful for testing drugs. In order to make them feasible for human transplant, they need to be much, much bigger—instead of containing a million cells, they’d have to contain at least a billion, and more realistically closer to 10 billion. Dr. Bhatia thinks that’s still a long way off.
What isn’t a ways off is a bionic pancreas that can successfully manage diabetes. Two Boston University researchers developed a synthetic organ that contains a glucose monitor, an insulin pump, and a glucagon pump, and which works in conjunction with an iPhone app that computes and keeps track of your body’s needs. In recent trials, the new invention worked better than other automatic regulation systems, doing a better job at stabilizing blood sugar levels and responding more quickly to low glucose levels.
Unlike in previous studies, subjects could be out and about in Boston while testing the pancreas, which gives a better indication of patient behavior, especially when it comes to eating and exercise. One of the researchers, Ed Damiano, was motivated because his son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as an infant, and Damiano has spent the past 15 years worrying that his son’s blood sugar would plummet while they were all sleeping. In 2005, he began testing the device in pigs, and started conducting trials on humans in 2008. He’s been improving the device ever since.
Further mobile and at-home studies will provide opportunities to continue to refine the device, with the goal being that it’s ready when his son heads to college in 2017.