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.     

A Hand in Security Access

Jen Buss


It is time for a paradigm shift in the way we look at security access across society. The hardware is out of control and can definitely be simplified.

Here is a personal example. I have 8 different fob access cards that I carry with me on a very regular basis: one for my condo, one for my apartment, one on my work badge, one additional fob for work on my keys (because I kept forgetting by badge), one for my parking garage, one for the work parking garage, one on my CAC card, and my metro card. It is disgusting. The worst part is that we have the ability to build a single device that can add access points as we need them, but it is more profitable for companies to make us pay for additional hardware every time we need new access. Companies have no interest in a new business model where individuals pay a service fee to have access on a user basis. The point is that I would rather pay to have less keys and fobs. This could work just like paying for email licenses and a cloud server, rather than individual email and servers at each business.

I had the option yesterday to put one RFID tag in my hand. It was brilliant: I could reduce all 8 access cards down to one and I could potentially reduce all my keys too. I could stop using passwords for some things because my hand was going to give me access. It is a beautiful solution for my mess of keys. I was seconds away from doing it until I realized that all of these companies will not let me reduce down to one because they are not all compatible. It is ridiculous that this is even a problem. Since I do not have the programming control, I do not have the ability to make the tag work where I want it to and these companies will not work with an independent retailer. I was understandably disappointed.

It is time for the industry model to change. Break through the tradition of selling fobs to make money and start selling a service. Simplify everyone’s lives. Security access is a daily struggle in everyday lives, and the market is ripe for change. Such simple regulation changes could make a vast impact on the lives of millions across the world.