Written by Judith Riess, MTM editor-in-chief


We have been discussing the changes taking place in healthcare and a bit of what the future of healthcare might bring about.  In reviewing some of the Ted Talks on the Future of Medicine some theories that seemed impossible a few years ago are coming to fruition.

3-D printing, genome therapy and harvesting living cells could make organ donor transplants obsolete, as well as solve the myriad of problems related to drugs that a patient must take after receiving an organ transplant to avoid rejection.  As a famous transplant surgeon once told me, “accepting a transplant means that a patient will have a better quality of life for a period of time but not necessarily a longer life”. 

Thanks to the research done by Dr. Anthony Atala and his colleagues at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, transplant patients not only have a better quality of life but a better opportunity to receive a transplant generated by their own bodies. Dr. Atala’s research focuses on growing human cells and tissues for use in transplants.  He and his team have already successfully engineered and transplanted bladders into living patients, and more types of tissue have been engineered and tested in models; which hopefully, will one day be usable in patients. When he gave his TED talk in 2011 Luke (received a bladder transplant when he was 10) joined Dr. Atala on stage.  Luke admitted that he just wanted to feel better and had no idea that the surgery he had received was revolutionizing medicine.  In 2011 at the Ted Talk he was in college majoring in communication.

In a very recent interview with 3-D Printing’s Vanesa Listek,  Dr. Atala said “Today, we continue to develop replacement tissues and organs, and are also working to speed up the availability of these treatments to patients. The ultimate goal is to create tissues for patients. Part of that is taking a very small piece of the patients tissue from the organ that we are trying to reconstruct, like muscle or blood vessels, only to expand the cells outside of the body and then use them to create the organ or structure along with a scaffold or a hydrogel which is the glue that holds the cells together. We have been doing this for quite some time with patients and 16 years ago we realized that we needed to scale up the technology and automate it to work with thousands of patients at a time, so we started thinking about 3D printers, and began using the typical desktop inkjet printer which was modified in-house to print cells into a 3D shape,”

“As science advances, we can benefit from leading research in other areas and help each other out,” Dr. Atala said. “The pace has picked up, because we know so much more than we did 30 years ago, we have more knowledge that allows us to be more precise in our strategies. This does not mean that we are progressing faster but the information that we get, allows us to be more precise in how we target our solutions.”

3-D Printing brought a number of other innovations to the medical field other than organ transplant use. Besides the use to create organs it is being used for surgical practice of procedures by first making a 3-D image of the patient specific organ so the surgeon may practice the surgery before the actual operation.  It has been very effective for pediatric surgery or preparing to operate on the tiny heart of a newborn.

Other uses having significant results are spinal repair, repairing bone fractures, or cracks and the surgeon’s ability to actually manipulate the 3-D object to have a better understanding of the best way to operate for maximum results.  This also cuts down on surgical time which is better for the surgeon and the patient.

Editor’s Notes will continue to review breakthrough technologies to improved care.