We’ve seen 3D printers create toys, sneakers, and even prosthetics. One startup wants to push further by creating a functioning, 3D-printed human heart.

Company BioLife4D is working on just that: a printing process that could recreate a beating human heart using a patient’s own cells.

Steven Morris, founding partner and CEO of BioLife4D, sees this as a solution for patients seeking heart transplants, with the possibility the technology could shift to other organs including the kidneys or pancreas.

“We’re literally at the precipice of human history where all of these things are finally possible,” said Morris during an interview.

The process of “bioprinting” a human heart starts with an MRI to scan the patient’s heart and a blood sample. Cells in the blood are then converted into heart cells and fed into the printer.

Using measurements from the MRI and a printer designed to protect the heart cells, a heart is reprinted one layer at a time. Once complete, the heart is placed into a bioreactor mimicking conditions within the human body until it starts to beat.

Morris said the statistics surrounding heart disease sparked the company’s push to start with the heart. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in every 4 deaths in the U.S. every year are linked to heart disease. It’s also the leading cause of death for men and women.

“We’re really going to focus on the heart to begin with,” said Morris. “The main reason is the scope and scale is so incredible.”

A rendering of the 3D printer recreating layers of
A rendering of the 3D printer recreating layers of a human heart. (Photo: BioLife4D)

In 2016, more than 3,000 heart transplants were performed in the U.S., said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Morris said the ability to print organs would solve both issues with a lack of donors and decrease the chances a patient would reject the organ because it was created with their own cells.

“We’re using a patient’s own cells and converting them to the types of specialized cells we need,” said Morris.

Bioprinting is a process where cells from a patient are used to “print” three-dimensional living tissue or bones. Last year, researchers at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid presented a prototype of a 3D bioprinter that could create functioning human skin.

In the case of organs, surgeons can 3D print replicas to aid them before a procedure, such as what happened at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children when doctors made a 3D replica of six-month-old child’s heart to practice before surgery, reports CTV News.

The medical world is still far away from the point where 3D-printed organs will be used in transplants. BioLife4D is hoping to print a miniature heart in a year, but Morris warned of possible unforseen obstacles that could surface as they attempt to create a life-sized version.

“We just don’t know for sure because we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.

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