Growing New Organs

By Brian Marks

Tissue regeneration — the practice of regrowing body parts — is a multidisciplinary field involving biology and engineering that is likely to revolutionize the health and quality of life for millions of people worldwide by restoring tissue and organ function. Now that new methods have been developed, there is potential that this technology could be used to test new drugs or to grow organs and human tissue.

3D Printing

Biotechnology firms have studied 3D printing technology as a possible solution to tissue regeneration. In tissue engineering applications, organs and body parts are built using inkjet computer-aided printers. Natural materials are printed one layer at a time until a particular 3D form is achieved. In the near future, you may be able to inject living cells into a printer and spray out 3D tissue to develop into human organs or tissue.

Using a 3D printer and injections of living cells, scientists have taken the first step toward growing customized new ears for children born with microtia (malformed external ear) or people who lose one to accident or disease. Also, researchers have printed living embryonic stem cells using a printer capable of printing droplets of cells gently enough to keep the cells alive and maintain their ability to differentiate into multiple cell types.


Photo Credit: Christopher Barnatt 2011

Additional Tissue Engineering Methods

In addition to 3D printing, scientists have studied manipulating faint electrical currents in the skin that appear to regulate tissue regeneration. By inhibiting such a current after amputating a salamander’s leg, scientists are able to shut down the process of regrowth. In light of this research, scientists are testing electrical fields on human tissue, hoping to enable regeneration where it doesn’t normally occur. Also, a cell-based approach is being attempted to transform cells back to progenitor cells that are similar to stem cells in that they can differentiate into a specific type of cell. It’s possible that these cells could be pushed to multiply and differentiate into cells needed to grow new human organs or tissue.


Classroom Discussion

  • How could stem cell research help tissue regeneration?
  • What other problems can we potentially solve by combining biology and engineering?