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Building Human Organs

Japanese medical experts are bringing a new tool into the operating room. They're using 3-D printers to help them with their surgeries. And they say they could be on the way to creating actual organs.

An operation room at Nagoya University Hospital. A patient has undergone surgery for liver cancer.

The surgeon held an exact replica of the patient's liver, made in a 3-D printer.

The model was created using data from the patient's CT scans taken three weeks earlier.

About 400 cross-section scans were taken of the patient's body at intervals of 0.5 millimeters.

The data was then programmed into a 3-D printer to produce the model.

The tumor was deeply embedded and surrounded by major blood vessels. But the model let the doctors see exactly where the tumor and vessels were. The growth was removed without damaging the surrounding blood vessels.

"It gives us a lot more confidence in what we're doing. It shows us things we couldn't see otherwise. We can work calmly, and make our incisions accurately."
Tsuyoshi Igami / Nagoya University Graduate School of Medicine

Now further advances are on the way. Instead of just using resin models, one day it might be possible to use 3-D printers to make actual organs out of living cells.

Professor Makoto Nakamura is set on creating a real, beating heart -- using a 3-D printer. He is a pioneer of the concept.

Nakamura used to work as a clinical pediatrician who specialized in cardiology. He has cared for many young patients who died because they couldn't get a transplant.

15 years ago, he decided to devote himself to creating a "bio-artificial heart" for use in transplant operations. His idea was to use a child's own cells to produce an organ that their body won't reject -- and that can grow along with them.

"There are so many patients who will die if they don't get heart transplants. My greatest hope is to find a way to create hearts for them."
Makoto Nakamura / Professor, University of Toyama

To achieve this, Nakamura developed a specially designed 3-D printer in 2005.

The doctor's aim is to use the printer to build an actual heart. It would be made of the living cells taken from the patient's tissues and then cultivated.

Many issues need to be resolved, such as how to keep the cells alive; and whether simply getting the cells to adhere to each other is enough to make them function as tissue. But first, Nakamura wants to see if he can build the organ accurately.

This is how he created tissue using a 3-D printer -- working with animal cells.

He took a million of the cultured cells and mixed them with a viscous liquid. The high-speed 3D-printer formed a tissue of living cells.

In 30 minutes, a block of living cells about 1 millimeter thick was formed. Nakamura has also succeeded in making high-speed 3-D printouts using human cells.

"If we want to reproduce biological tissue, we absolutely have to keep thousands of cells moving every second. We can do this by making full use of the 3-D printer."
Makoto Nakamura / Professor, University of Toyama

Now global research is under way to see if functioning organs can be produced. Nakamura hopes it won't be long before bio-artificial hearts become a reality.

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