A Chicago-based biotech company just changed the future of medical technology when they released the news that they had bioprinted a miniature human heart from stem cells. Biolife4D has been developing the technology to 3D print human cardiac tissue for some time, and this cherry-sized heart is the closest "anyone has gotten to producing a fully functional heart through 3D bioprinting," according to Biolife4D Chief Science Officer, Ravi Birla.
So how exactly does a 3D bioprinting a heart work? First, blood cells from the patient are collected and converted into a type of stem cell called Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells. These cells are then converted to "bioink" and can be used by a 3D printer. By using cells from the patients own body, there is zero chance of the body rejecting the heart (which is common with transplanted organs).
The miniature heart has the same structure as human hearts, with four internal chambers. Right now, it's partially functional, which won't help a human survive but can help with cardiotoxicity testing - or in other words, helping drug companies and medical researchers test what happens to a heart when it has problems. This heart is closer to human hearts than the animal hearts currently being tested on (and it's more ethical too).
The next task for the Biolife4D team is to improve the 3D bioprinting technology to be able to print a human sized heart. There are other challenges that come with this task, including improving the efficiency of the cell reprogramming process and working on the bioink to more closely replicate the human heart's natural extracellular matrix (ECM).
Once these obstacles have been overcome, the team can begin to test the hearts inside animals, and eventually, humans. They are hoping that within a three year timeframe, their technology will allow them to print full-sized, functional human hearts. The future of medical technology has never looked more promising.
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