3D-printed hearts: Please wait

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Photo taken on April 15, 2019 shows a 3D-printed heart with human tissue at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel. Tel Aviv University scientists said on Monday that they have printed the first 3D heart, by using patient's cells and materials. The heart, which was produced in a lab, completely matches the biological characteristics of the patient's heart. It took about three hours to print the whole heart. Xinhua/JINI/Gideon Markowicz

It might sound like a sci-fi fantasy, but scientists are determined that one day we’ll be able to 3D-print vital organs, like the heart, kidney or liver, to use in transplants.

Cardiovascular disease and stroke kill more people globally than anything else, according to the World Health Organisation, and synthetic organs could help enormously in overcoming issues of organ shortage and the risks of patients’ bodies rejecting them.

While we’re not quite there yet, a new development from Israel shows we’re only getting closer. A team of scientists at Tel Aviv University say they have successfully printed a miniature heart-shaped prototype using human tissue.

The tiny mold is about the size of a rabbit’s heart – or a cherry – and can contract like a muscle, but doesn’t have the ability to actually pump blood.

“People have managed to 3D-print the structure of a heart in the past, but not with cells or with blood vessels,” Tal Dvir, who led the research, told a press conference.

Researchers created the heart using a biopsy of fatty tissue taken from a human patient. Using the patient’s own tissue was particularly important in reducing the risk of implant rejection, Dvir said.

But other scientists say we still have a long way to go before we’re able to create a human heart suitable for transplants using 3D printing technology.

“The printed blood vessel network demonstrated in this study is still limited,” Felix Schonrath, physician from the German Heart Center in Berlin, told DW.

The surgeon described the Israeli prototype as a heart-shaped shell with two chambers, rather than something that could be considered an organ.

Scientists are still yet to formulate a way of imaging all of the small-diameter blood vessels of the heart, Schonrath said, in order to create an accurate blueprint. Current 3D printers also remain limited by their resolution size.

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