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Biolife4D may be the first to 3D print a human heart

Biolife4D may be the first to 3D print a human heart

A scientific start-up in Chicago, Biolife4D, is making large strides in the field of 3D bioprinting. Their aim is to finally solve a long-standing problem in bioprinting. Namely, the ability to print a functioning human heart for transplants. “What this is set up to do is to make a patient-specific, fully functioning heart that’s viable for transplant, using the patient’s own cells,” says Steven Morris, founding partner and CEO of Biolife4D.

A competitive industry

Something of a race is going on to be the first to be able to fully print human skin and organs. Companies like Organovo have been successfully doing it since 2007, partially printing lung, kidney, and heart tissue. And in 2016 the company Cellink was founded to supply bioprinting researches and enthusiasts the first bioink. The issue has drawn great scientific focus, primarily as a response to a lack of supply.

With 3,500 people in Europe waiting for a new heart and 4,000 in America, the need for an alternative is dire. Apart from its shape, the heart is the most simple organ in the human body. Not needing to perform biochemistry like the liver or kidney, and being fully understood (unlike the brain), the heart is considered the perfect start for the young field of bioprinting. Cellink has even solved the cost of bioprinting by creating a series of printers ranging in price from £7,600 to £29,900. This offers a sharp reduction in initial costs, as the standard was previously in excess of £150,000.

A refined approach

The process of printing a heart has been studied in several labs. Biolife4D have refined the process by scanning the heart with an MRI machine to create a 3D image of the patient’s heart (not unlike regular 3d printers to recreate an object). Next, a blood sample is taken to convert the cells into stem cells, which will be used to create heart cells. These heart cells will then be combined with a type of hydrogel bioink that can mimic human biology.

Like a regular 3D printer, the bioprinter will print a scaffold, one layer at a time until the cells resemble an exact replica of the patient’s heart. The heart cells then link on their own into a replica of the organ. When the heart is strong enough, they will heat it to melt the scaffolding and it'll be ready to transplant.

“When we’re done ‘bioprinting,’ we have something that looks like a heart, but it’s just individual cells in proper places,” says Morris. “Within a couple of days, the cells just know . . . ‘I’m a heart cell, you’re a heart cell, we’re supposed to join together and start beating.’ And they do that.”

Improved survival rates

Most people who have a heart transplant do not survive. Their bodies reject the organ, or the drugs used to suppress their immune system makes them vulnerable to other diseases. A heart printed by Biolife4D won't carry this risk because the heart is an exact genetic copy of the patient’s own heart. There are few hurdles to overcome, however, such as printing the blood vessels in the heart. This particular barrier has yet to be overcome.

If you want to support Biolife4D, the company supports itself through crowdfunding. “We wanted to make [the investment opportunity] available to everybody, not just wealthy people on Wall Street,” Morris says.

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