Print an organ, save a life

By Andrew Peterson

U.S. organ donation systems have a supply and demand problem. The number of individuals in need of life-saving organs outstrips supply. The National Kidney Foundation reports that, as of November 2016, over 120,000 individuals are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant in the U.S.. Of these individuals, 100,791 require kidney transplants with a median wait time of 3.6 years. Many die before receiving a transplant. It is estimated that 13 individuals die every day waiting for a kidney.

There are several proposed solutions to this problem. Some have argued that the U.S. should adopt a mandatory deceased donation policy. This would resolve supply shortages and curb the illegal practice of organ trafficking. Another option is a regulated organ market. This approach would incentivize the exchange of human body parts between parties who are not be motivated by altruism.

These solutions are ethically messy, and policy makers might be reluctant to attach their names to these ideas. But what if we could avoid the ethical mess by leveraging technology?

What if we could print an organ?

We are in the midst of a 3-D printing revolution, and the prospect of printing organs is not mere science fiction. Reports in Nature and the Economist highlight that 3-D printing is already used for artificial joints, bone grafts, and cartilage structures. The U.S. market for printed body parts is greater than $500 million, and annual growth is increasing exponentially. Printing organs is favorable as compared to other methods, such as xenotransplantation: printed organs can be customized, can be printed on demand, have no viability window, and are not susceptible to zoonotic disease.

Despite this potential benefit, printing whole organs still faces technical obstacles. This is where policy makers have an opportunity to act. Below we highlight two recommendations that could position the U.S. as a medical technology leader in the 3-D printing revolution, and could ultimately save lives.

Recommendation 1: Incentivize collaborations between scientists and industry

The growth of the 3-D printing industry has already outpaced market forecasts. Economist project the industry will be worth $20 Billion by 2020. This pace of growth can be leveraged toward increased medical technology research by incentivizing relationships between science and industry. Federal research dollars could be used for match making in research project grants, or broad investment in University infrastructures that promote collaboration. The U.S. is already leading 3-D printing innovation. This model could put the U.S. in a position to make one of the most profound medical technology breakthroughs of the 21st century.

Recommendation 2: Promote discussion of ethical issues associated with printed body parts

New technologies bring new ethical questions. Printed body parts are no exception. Should we maximize equitable access of printed organs—or 3-D printing units? Should insurance companies pay for printed organs as they do for prosthetic technologies? And should printed organs be enhanced beyond normal function? These questions require discussion between industry leaders, scientists, and science and technology policy experts. Federal dollars can promote these discussions by integrating ethical analyses into research projects. The U.S. Human Genome Project and BRAIN Initiative use this incentive model. Federal dollars that support the 3-D printing revolution can do the same.     

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