There is a major health crisis in terms of the shortage of organs. Since 2013, the total number of patients requiring a transplant has doubled while the number of available donor organs has remained relatively the same. According to the Health Resources & Services Administration, every day 17 people die waiting for an organ transplant in the US. This issue is now a public health crisis. Fortunately, due to the advancement of technology, three-dimensional (3D)-printed organs have become a reality.

In 2014, a California-based company called Organovo was the first to successfully engineer commercially available 3D-bioprinted human livers and kidneys. 3D printing in healthcare is used to create living human cells or tissues for regenerative medicine and tissue engineering purposes. The process of 3D printing typically begins with obtaining a sample of a patient’s own cells to grow and expand outside the body in a sterile incubator or bioreactor. These cells are then fed with nutrients called ‘media’ and mixed with a gel that acts as a glue. This mixture is then loaded into a printing chamber to build tissues by building the material up layer by layer.

Currently, the biggest challenge is to get the organs to function as they should. Despite the tremendous amount of progress being made in this field, Dr Anthony Atala and his colleagues at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are conservative with their estimate about the number of years remaining before fully functioning 3D-printed organs can be implanted into humans.

In spite of the unknown timeline of when bioprinting organs can become an available option to patients, researchers are optimistic about the affordability of it for patients and their caregivers. The cost associated with organ failure is very high: just to keep a patient on dialysis is estimated to cost around C$350,000 ($270,000) in Canada, according to Ferguson and colleagues. According to research published by the American Society of Nephrology, in 2020 the average cost of a kidney transplant was $442,500, while 3D printers retail for upwards of $100,000, depending on their complexity. Adding costs of surgery and maintaining the 3D-printed organs could still be cheaper than a kidney transplant, according to Jennifer Lewis, a professor at Harvard University ’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

This is an exciting field that is still being developed and its speculated affordability is a good sign for patients and their caregivers.