On-demand replacement body parts inched closer to reality with the announcement from San Diego biotech company Organovo that its organ “printer” had created the first artificial blood vessel made entirely from human cells, with no synthetic scaffolding.
Instead of dispensing ink, Organovo’s bioprinter uses two robotic tips to deposit globs of cells—in this case, endothelial cells that line blood-vessel walls, smooth muscle cells that regulate vessel dilation and contraction, and structural fibroblast cells. The printer takes 45 minutes to create a four-inch-long tube with a diameter of a few hundredths of an inch. Researchers flush the tube with nutrients to mimic blood flow, allowing the vessel to mature for about a month.
Organovo chief scientist Gabor Forgacs plans to test the printed vessels in animals late this year. If the vessels perform well, they could be particularly useful for bypass surgery. Currently, surgeons working to reroute blood around an obstruction must harvest healthy veins from elsewhere in the patient’s body. “For decades, people have been trying to come up with a replacement,” says Craig Kent, a vascular surgeon at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a scientific adviser to Organovo. “We hope these printers will help us cross the finish line.” Eventually, more complex printouts, such as kidneys, may compensate for shortfalls in donated organs.