Organ donors may soon give way to organ printers, machines that build living transplantable organs one layer at a time, much as a dot matrix printer renders hard copy. A prototype device built by nScrypt, a company in Orlando, Florida, deposits one-hundredth-of-an-inch-thick dollops of lab-cultured cells onto a layer of gel-based paper invented at the University of Utah. The paper resembles the natural scaffolding that surrounds cells in the body. Once the cells are in place, "the gel provides a natural-like environment in which the cells sort themselves out," says University of Utah medicinal chemist Glenn Prestwich, who invented the formula.
As a first application, a group headed by biophysicist Gabor Forgacs at the University of Missouri at Columbia intends to build a working blood vessel for use in patients with blood clots or heart conditions. "Currently, people are using polyester, but this would be a living graft." The cells used to build the organs could be cultured from stem cells taken from fat or bone-marrow tissue, he says: "We could engineer a blood vessel from your own cells."