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.     

An Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures

Charles Mueller

Currently there is no dedicated industry or government effort aimed at creating a more fundamental understanding of health.  Such an effort could provide the knowledge we need to create cures to the 10,000 known diseases.  If nobody else will step up, maybe what we need is an “Ice Bucket Challenge” to fund efforts that seek to do this.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a huge success.  In 2014 alone, the concept raised $100+ million dollars for ALS research, which is over twice as much money as NIH put towards the same cause.  This week the ALS Association is reporting that money from this campaign funded research that found a significant gene, which appears to be a major factor in ALS.  The takeaway is that it is possible to accelerate research for health related issues outside the “limelight” by looking to things like crowdsourcing via social media as unique funding streams.

Now, not to downplay the finding of this new gene related to ALS, but as exciting as this might seem, this finding isn’t likely going to lead to a cure anytime soon.  This is simply because finding a gene is only one piece in complicated puzzle that is disease.

Let me explain.

Genes can be compared to players on a sports team.  Teams are made up of a variety of players and work together to achieve some goal (e.g. win a championship).  Often there are all-stars that really make the team what it is, but a team is always more than one player.  And just like one all-star really can’t win you a championship, a single “all-star” gene likely won’t be all you need to find a cure to a disease.

Furthermore, teams need coaches, a person that understands how the game is played and why the team works like it does.  In general, this is the problem with all disease, we lack the knowledge of how and why disease occurs.  If we want the championship of medicine (i.e. cures) then we need to a real scientific understanding of health. 

This is why we need an Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures.  We need to stop waiting for others to see the importance of funding a cause that attempts to integrate all known theories of health and disease; one that provides some sort of physical, mathematical basis for human biology.

Let’s dump ice on our heads to fund the search for Maxwell’s equations for biology!

Let’s spread the love on social media promoting the quest for health’s E=mc^2!

Creating a real theoretical understanding of health/disease that can be traced to the fundamental properties of matter will not just help find cures to diseases like ALS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc., it will provide the pathway to find cures to any and all disease.

Let’s start this journey with an Ice Bucket Challenge for Cures!