Several years ago, a relative of mine needed a liver transplant. While she did ultimately receive one, she was one of the lucky ones, but the wait was far too long. Sadly, she never fully recovered after the transplant and died a few months later. I thought then (and still think) if she had been able to get a transplant when she needed it, she might have lived. There is an organ shortage the world wide, but it is particularly acute in the United States because our medical system makes organ donation an ‘opt-in’ that ill and injured people’s families aren’t prepared to deal with. Social scientists and ethicists are still working on that problem, but maybe someday we won’t need donated organs, we’ll be able to 3-D print them.
This is a very, very early step towards someday being able to manufacture tissues and organs. They are just figure out how to do this. But the prospect of being able to manufacture tissue in this way is a huge leap forward. Of course, no one is going to be printing off a heart in the next year. But the potential benefits here are enormous. Skin grafts for burn victims might be one early application, but kidneys and livers are the real prize. Organ trading is illegal in every country on earth, but it’s virtually impossible to prevent very wealthy people from paying people, often uneducated people in third world countries, to ‘donate’ a kidney. I’m not saying that this will democratize access to healthcare – but I do think that this is an area where the natural scarcity leads to vastly, vastly unequal access and outcomes. ANYTHING that can move the needle is welcome, and long overdue.