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Printed Tissue Could Ease Transplant Shortages

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Ramille Shah shows off “the best investment I ever made.”
Photo by: Nima Taradji

One day, 3-D printers may produce real organs—livers, kidneys or hearts. Today, though, Ramille Shah is aiming for a little bit of bone.
For the past year, Ms. Shah, 36, head of the Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Lab at Northwestern University, has been using a 3-D printer to churn out a biodegradable bone substitute. Referred to as a “scaffold,” the material largely is made from the primary mineral found in bone tissue—a calcium compound called hydroxyapatite.

Ms. Shah’s 11-person team includes her husband, Dr. Nirav Shah, 36, an orthopedic surgeon. They estimate that in five years, rather than harvest cadaver tissue or use certain orthopedic implants, doctors will insert the scaffold into a patient, where it will turn into whatever stem cells surround it—whether that is bone, cartilage or ligament. “You’re turning humans into salamanders,” Dr. Shah says.

Ms. Shah’s lab is not the first to experiment with bioprinting. But rather than attempt to replicate human cells—like those trying to print organs—her research is focused on developing materials for tissue regeneration. “Cartilage, bones, these are good applications because they don’t need too much blood supply. These are the first guys to succeed in a 3-D printed world,” says Pranav Soman, an assistant professor of biomedical and chemical engineering at Syracuse University who runs a lab similar to Ms. Shah’s.

The technology is perfect for printing the natural and synthetic molecules in a porous formation ideal for a patient’s cells to work their way inside and regenerate, Ms. Shah says. “The best investment I ever made was buying our 3-D printer,” she says of the $200,000 machine she installed in 2011, nearly two years after opening the lab. She declines to disclose the lab’s annual budget but says funding comes from private and government sources.
The lab also is developing “inks” optimized for cell structures in livers, kidneys and ovaries. The Shahs are in the early stages of launching a startup to market the products, called 3D Tissue Inks. “We are talking about a whole different class of implants,” Dr. Shah says. “You’re not putting in metal or plastics. You’re putting in something that will allow (the body part) to grow back to what it naturally was.”

The materials comprising the “inks” are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the final product will require further approval if taken into a clinical setting. Ms. Shah says the materials offer the potential to ease transplant shortages. “It’s readily available. You don’t have to wait for tissue. You can have it off the shelf,” she says. Plus, it’s cheaper than cadaver tissue—about a 20th of the cost, Ms. Shah estimates.