top of page
The  iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage
The iluli by Mike Lamb logo. Click to return to the homepage

Bioprinting: An Organ Transplant Revolution?

As technologies go, printing can feel fairly mundane and uninspiring. Sure, some impressive things are being done with 3D printing but that can feel pretty remote when you’re trying to fix yet another paper jam.

What if I told you that printing might be on the verge of a huge breakthrough which would herald a revolution in medical science and save tens of thousands of lives a year? What if instead of just churning out paper and plastic, our printers could print… us? That’s the exciting potential offered by bioprinting.

Watch my short explainer to find out more…

The inkjet printer hack that could change the world

The first advances in bioprinting really did come from hacking an inkjet printer. It may sound ink-redible (pardon the pun!) but that old printer in your home or office is capable of printing living tissue.

A bunch of hobbyists who call themselves BioCurious recently made their own bioprinter out of an old inkjet they found dumped by the side of the road. You can see a step-by-step guide to how they did it here. (Disclaimer: If you’re thinking of trying this yourself, I should probably point out that these hobbyists all have jobs in Silicon Valley. We’re unlikely to see a ‘hack your own bioprinter’ challenge going viral on TikTok anytime soon.)

Canadian firm Aspect Biosystems is one of many working to bring bioprinting into the mainstream. This short video offers a glimpse behind the lab door at what the process looks like in action:

Bioprinting today

Most experts agree that we’re at least a decade away from being able to use this technology to print fully functioning living organs. But, on a smaller scale, bioprinting is already changing lives.

Luke Massella was one of the first people in the world to have a bioprinted bladder. Printing a bladder grown from his own cells meant that his immune system did not reject the new organ. Luke, who was born with spina bifida, underwent surgery 17 times before he had the transplant at 13. Interviewed at the age of 27, he revealed he hadn’t needed any surgery since.

A breakthrough clinical trial last year saw the first successful transplant of a bioprinted ear. 3DBio Therapeutics, the regenerative medicine company behind the trial, grew a new right ear using cells from a 20-year-old patient’s left ear. Following the transplant, the new organ will continue to regenerate cartilage tissue. It will be virtually indistinguishable from a natural ear.

“It shows this technology is not an ‘if’ anymore, but a ‘when’,” according to Adam Feinberg, a professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Trials are now underway to bioprint tissue for eyes, kidneys and even a heart. Once this has been achieved, could a bioprinted brain follow? Some researchers certainty think so.

Dr Anthony Atala is one of the leading pioneers of regenerative medicine. He is the surgeon who bioprinted a new bladder for Luke Massella. Describing the levels of complication involved with bioprinting different types of living cells and organs, he explains that:

“Flat tissues (e.g. skin) are the least complex, tubular structures (e.g. blood vessels) more complex, hollow nontubular organs (e.g. bladder) even more complex, and solid organs (e.g. liver or heart) the most complex.”

His verdict on what the distant future holds could be interpreted as promising or slightly terrifying:

“With further progress in large‐scale cell culture, bioprocess engineering, and genetic strategies, it is possible that we will be able to design specific printable living structures that are not even conceivable today.”

Bioprinting tomorrow: Three ways it might change the world

If scientists are right, then we are now on the cusp of the biggest printing-based revolution since Johannes Gutenberg decided to branch out from blacksmithing.

Here are some of the ways that this 21st century innovation in printing technology might change the world all over again:

1. A solution to organ donor waiting lists

In the 50 years since the first successful kidney transplant, the life-saving procedure of transplanting organs has become ever more common. An estimated 144,000 organ transplantations were performed across the world in 2021. While that represents an incredible number of lives saved, demand for organs far outstrips supply. In the US alone, more than 104,000 men, women and children are on a waiting list. Sadly, 17 of them will die every day waiting for an organ that never arrives. Many others will have to spend anxious months or even years waiting to be matched with a suitable donor.

The ability to print new organs on demand would undoubtedly save thousands of lives, and massively speed up life-saving care. If expert predictions prove correct, then bioprinted organs may well become the default for transplants by the 2030s.

2. A route to new medical breakthroughs

Almost every medical breakthrough involves tests on animals. Before any new medicine can be approved for human trials, regulators demand to see data from lab tests on other living creatures – usually rats and mice.

But imagine if, instead of using animals to second-guess how our bodies might respond to a new drug treatment, scientists could perform trials on living human organs and tissue created specifically for this purpose.

The advantages of being able to custom-print tissue and organs to test out more bespoke treatments could be huge. Bioprinting technology is already being used to print cancerous tumours, helping doctors to develop personalised treatments for patients.

Away from medicine, a similar trend has emerged in cosmetics. Chanel, for instance, now tests its products on 3D bioprinted skin.

3. Printing our own meals

Not content with transforming health and medicine, bioprinting has yet another ace up its sleeve: it’s about to unleash a revolution in food.

As appetites for vegan diets have grown, plant-based meat alternatives have become a regular fixture on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus. And while many vegan burgers and sausages make for convincing substitutes, the advent of lab-grown meat is getting closer. We’ll soon be able to eat ‘meat’ that has never been part of a living animal.

Last November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a cultivated meat product – a lab-grown chicken breast – as safe for human consumption. UPSIDE Foods, the California-based firm behind it, is aiming to have its products in restaurants and shops by the end of this year.

Now that the first lab-grown meat has been approved by regulators, expect to see many more follow. KFC is working on bioprinted chicken nuggets while Israeli firms MeaTech and Aleph Farms have both grown steaks from stem cells. We can’t try them ourselves yet, but taste tests suggest that the results are promising.

Of course, this opens up a whole new ethical dilemma. Can sirloin steak be considered part of a vegan diet if it comes from a laboratory, rather than a butcher?

Recommended links and further reading

  • 3D-Printed Organs: The Future of Transplantation (CNN) This CNN article from last year covers some of the key recent developments in bioprinting.

  • 3D Bioprinting (BBC Radio 4) In this radio documentary from 2015, Howard Stableford looks at how advances in 3D printing and bioprinting are being used to benefit the natural world. He even poses the question of whether bioprinting could bring the Dodo back from extinction. The verdict? Yes, in theory, although we’re unlikely to see it any of our lifetimes…

  • Could 3D Printing Be the Future of Organ Transplants? (BBC News) The bioprinting firm CELLINK features in this report which explores the future potential of the technology and how it is already being used to support vital medical testing.

  • Can Lab-Grown Steak be the Future of Meat? (Insider Business) A look behind the scenes at the Israeli firm MeaTech and their efforts to pioneer a bioprinted steak.


bottom of page