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A Black Market for 3-D Printed Organs?

The rise in 3-D printing technologies has inched us closer than ever to a world where the press of a button could produce a functioning human heart or kidney--but what if this kind of power falls into the wrong hands?

Kristopher Sturgis

Shadowy FigureAs 3-D printing technologies advance alongside modern medicine, one of the grim realities of making advanced bioprinting devices available to the public means opening the door for criminals to take advantage of the power to create and manufacture human tissue, as Wired recently noted. 

As medical printing technologies slowly become a staple of modern medical facilities, how do we stop unlicensed and unlawful citizens from taking matters into their own hands to produce cheap, low-quality bioprinted organs?

Such a scenario isn't as farfetched as it sounds, according to Wired. There are literally scores of patients around the world in need of an organ transplant with no insurance, or no access to the appropriate channels for an organ transplant. What's to stop them from turning to the black market where they could simply request the organ of their choice to be printed at the push of a button for a fraction of the cost--especially if their life depends on it?

While such realities are as daunting as they are plausible, there still remains a laundry list of technical and regulatory hurdles that need to be addressed, which could buy enough time to address some of these issues. The mere fact that a black market for 3-D printed organs is even possible is a testament to the accelerated pace of bioprinting innovations.

Lately researchers have produced a bevy of different 3-D printed innovations, from 3-D printed cells using a bioprinter, to 4-D printed creations that involve materials that can transform and self-assemble. Researchers have been working tirelessly to unlock the secrets of 3-D bioprinting considering all the potential breakthroughs such a discovery would usher in.

Earlier this month, researchers from four different universities teamed up to create a new bioprinter that can preserve cells better than any traditional scaffold 3-D printing techniques. These traditional scaffold printers utilize a process that squirts bio-ink through a nozzle to create its objects in layers -- a process that can damage and kill cells. Instead, this new bioprinter builds structures by placing groups of cells in fine needle arrays based off of pre-designed 3-D data, allowing the cells to bond and fuse into tissue.

However, despite some of these leaps in bioprinting technologies, some of the major concerns --like the potential unsanctioned sale of 3-D printed human organs--remain a significant barrier to progress. Granted, any kind of black market for 3-D printed organs could be avoided by streamlining the process of bioprinting, making 3-D printed organs affordable enough to become a normal part of healthcare. This would allow the majority of patients, who have relatively comprehensive healthcare, to have reasonable access to 3-D bioprinting technologies, making them less likely to resort to any kind of black market organs.

The next challenge would be to curb the use of knock-off printed organs in the poorer areas of the world where money and resources are scarce, making it difficult for patients in need of organ transplants to have access to 3-D bioprinting technologies. As we've already seen in the past, patients in need of life-saving organs will resort to virtually any means necessary if it can deliver them the organ they need.

With such grim realities on the precipice of this kind of breakthrough, it seems that the use of advanced bioprinting techniques could be the opening of a new medical Pandora's box. While it still may not be clear whether or not 3-D printing technologies hold the key to solving all the issues surrounding organ donation, the promise of 3-D bioprinting solutions remains quite significant--and the impact could be rather historic. 

Chris Newmarker is senior editor of Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @newmarker.

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[Image courtesy of Frasier Mummery per Creative Commons 2.0 license]

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