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Printing A Kidney: A Glimpse At The Future

Health reporters were aflutter last week with reports that Dr. Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest's Institute of Regenerative Medicine, printed a real, working kidney at a recent TED talk.

Headlines claiming things like, "Surgeon Creates A New Kidney By 'Printing' It" and "Need A Kidney? Just Hit Print..." compelled Wake Forest to issue a statement on its website calling the media reports "completely inaccurate."

So what's really going on? Is organ printing an immediate reality or still the stuff of science fiction?

Well, Dr. Atala and his team are leading the way in the burgeoning field of bioprinting, which is exactly what it sounds like -- using printers (and sometimes the actual printer cartridges you'd use in your home or office machine) to print cells and biocompatible materials. Other major players in the field, like Organovo, have printed things including blood vessels, WIRED reports.

So the field exists, yes, and the technology is improving. But the kidney-shaped mold that Atala showed at TED was exactly that -- a mold, without the vessels or internal structures of an actual, working kidney. The hope, Wake Forest says, is that one day, the same printer from the talk will be used to print actual tissues and organs, but that day is "many years from now."

Another Atala-team advance that has gotten a lot of attention, but again, still looms on the horizon is using bioprinting to create new skin directly on wounds or, Marketplace reports, burn victims. In his speech at the TED conference, Atala said that he and his team are actively designing a printer prototype that would do exactly that.

"I know it sounds funny," he laughed, "but that's the way it works."

More specifically, a flatbed scanner would scan a patient's wound first to get an accurate "read" of it. Then it would come back and actually begin printing layers of cells where they need to be. (In a similar vein,we recently reported on an experimental spray gun that uses stem cells from a burn victim's skin and sprays them directly onto their skin, dramatically speeding up healing time.)

So that's where Atala and his team are hopefully headed, but what have they actually achieved to date? A lot.

This week, Atala and team of doctors released follow-up reports showing that the five urethras they'd grown for Mexican boys injured in car accidents six years earlier were functioning well. The researchers had taken a small piece from the boys' bladders and used the cells to grow tube-like structures aimed at replacing the damaged tissue.

Atala and his team have successfully "grown" new bladders, too, for more than 10 years. Indeed, one of his first patients, Luke Masella, appeared on stage at the TED talk to speak about the bladder he was successfully given at age 10, after a battle with the birth defect spina bifida left his bladder paralyzed and his kidneys failing. Want more details on how that happened? Check out the video below.


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