Biolife4D, a startup in Chicago, will begin developing the process of 3D-printing human hearts that could be used in transplants. The process begins by scanning a patient’s heart shape and size with an MRI machine, and taking a blood sample. Next, the blood cells are converted into stem cells which are then converted into heart cells, and these heart cells are combined with nutrients in a hydrogel to form a “bio-ink” to be used in a specialised 3D printer. The heart is then printed one layer at a time, and with a biodegradable scaffolding as support, the cells form the exact shape of the patient’s original heart. The printed heart is then strengthened in a bioreactor as the new heart cells self-assemble. When the heart is strong enough it can be transplanted, and because it is made of the patient’s own cells, it has a greater chance of success than a traditional donated transplant. Biolife4d aims to make a ‘mini heart’ within the year.
Currently, most people who receive heart transplants do not live longer than 10 years due to either their body directly rejecting the organ, or from being unable to fight off other diseases having taken immunosuppressant drugs in an attempt to prevent their body from rejecting the organ. This 3D printed heart would not only meet the demand for patients awaiting heart transplants, but it would also provide hearts with an exact genetic match without the need for suppressing patient’s immune systems, greatly increasing the transplant’s chance of success.
The startup’s ‘mini hearts’ can be used for testing by pharmaceutical companies as a more reliable alternative to animal testing, which is currently a poor proxy for how drugs perform in humans.