At the intersection of technology, medicine, and science fiction lies the future of heart transplant surgery: 3D bioprinting. People are using 3D printers to make toys, gadgets, and artwork at home by applying layer upon layer of plastic, metal, ceramics, or wax to create three-dimensional objects. The most significant use today of what is formally known as additive manufacturing technology may be when your heart surgeon makes a 3D model of your heart to prepare for your open heart surgery. But very soon, 3D bioprinting is poised to transform heart transplant surgeries of all kinds. This month, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) gave UCSD researcher Shaochen Chen, PhD, $1.3 million dollars to develop “3D bioprinting techniques using human embryonic stem cell-derived heart muscle cells to create new cardiac tissue.” What does this mean for future heart disease patients in San Diego and California? It means freedom from the heart or cardiac tissue donor waiting list because science will be able to 3D bioprint exactly what you need from your own cells!

3D printing or additive manufacturing describes a process of making solid, three-dimensional objects from a digital template. 3D printing is an additive process because the object is created by depositing successive sheets of material until the object is complete. Although the first ‘additive manufacturing’ printers were invented in the early 1980s, much like early computers, they were gigantic, seriously expensive, and not ‘user-friendly.’ And much like computers, 3D printers have grown smaller and less complicated to use, to the point where they are truly personal 3D printers. Artists, inventors and desperate parents have used their 3D printers and the wide array of materials available to produce items ranging from beautiful objets d’art, wheelchairs for tiny Chihuahuas, and custom toys for their children. But the advances in medicine are truly moving us into ‘Star Trek’ territory. In the last two years alone, doctors have used 3D printing to: create replica hips so surgeons can practice hip replacement surgeries; save the life of a 2-week old baby with a very unusual heart condition; replace the lower jaw of an 83-year old woman in the Netherlands; and create a prosthetic arm for a 7-year old boy for just $300. And the United States Army is researching the true sci-fi applications of this new technology. 3D-printing has transformed the production of prosthetics and will ultimately reduce the overall cost of production, to everyone’s benefit. But the biggest impact will be in the treatment of burns. Skin repair after serious burns is so difficult because the scars that develop constrict movement and disfigure permanently. Bio-printing with a soldier’s own cells can restore skin that is not only elastic but complete with sweat glands, proper pigmentation, follicles and pores.

What does this mean for the future? In addition to the promising research being conducted at UCSD, San Diego is home to one of the world’s leading bioprinting companies, Organovo. They are already producing bioprinted tissues for use in drug research and testing, and developed 3D bioprinting technology which they ultimately hope will save some of the 18 people who die every day waiting for an organ donor. With the right tissue as source material, San Diego patients may be among the first in the world to benefit from the groundbreaking work San Diego scientists are doing developing the tools and technologies that will make futuristic bioprinting a reality. Fortunately, San Diego residents also have access to qualified, compassionate home care from Casa Companion Homecare Solutions to support the post-operation recovery process which is so crucial to long-term transplant success.