We're Getting Closer to 3D Printing Kidneys

A 3D-printed battery the size of a grain of sand made its debut earlier this year, with the help of Harvard Professor Jennifer Lewis, a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute. To achieve the feat, Lewis and her team had to create specialized, “disappearing” inks — inks so unique they’re making more than microbatteries; they’re close to creating fully-functioning printed kidneys.

Jennifer Lewis spoke at the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference Tuesday about microscale 3D printing. Harvard’s Lewis Lab is focused on the directed and self-assembly of soft functional materials, and has made progress in creating human tissues that include rudimentary blood vessels, all with a 3D printer.

The 3D printer builds the tissue in layers, as well as various types of cells and materials. Lewis’s team has constructed “hollow, tube-like structures within a mesh of printed cells using an ‘ink’ that liquefies as it cools,” according to the MIT Technology Review. Once liquefied, the ink can be removed with a light vacuum, leaving behind an empty channel to then be infused with the cells that normally line the body’s blood vessels.

At EmTech, Lewis said “her group is using the same approach to making the tubes inside kidneys that help filter blood.” The team is starting with kidneys, “because they account for 80 percent of the need for organ transplants.”

A lot of work still needs to be done until patients start receiving 3D-printed organs. On stage Tuesday, Lewis said there are still challenges in sustaining cells and keeping them viable as researchers are printing.

“We’ll probably never be able to print the capillaries, which are on the order of 10 microns,” Lewis added. “Our thinking about this is to use top-down printing to create some overarching structure, and then let biology do the rest.”

Image via David Sweeney, Director of Marketing and Communications for MIT Technology Review