3D printing saves lives by reducing the need for human transplants

Health |  4 min. read

Need a heart transplant? You might need be prepared to wait from months to years. In March of this year, 112,000 people on the waiting list for life-saving organs in the United States. Someone new joins the list every 10 minutes. And unfortunately, 20 people on that list die every day before getting the help they need.

What if we could shrink those wait times from several months to just a few hours, saving countless lives?

Revolutionary advances in healthcare brought on by new materials and 3D printing are making it possible. Processes such as bio-printing are employing petrochemical building-block materials alongside living cells to make organs that can go into the human body. Not just hearts, but also ears, eyes, bones and even skin.

Rather than those donated by humans or taken from the anatomies of animals, these new printing processes are in some cases using the patient’s own organs and cells to create regenerated, and, at times, even better versions.

Want to feel heartened about the future of organ transplants? Check out some of these advancements in 3D healthcare.


You’re going to love how they’re making hearts these days.

Researchers are making model hearts that doctors can examine and practice on prior to a surgery, and also tailor-made versions with living cells that can fundamentally repair hearts.

In the former case, illustrated in a video from the University of Washington, a model heart is printed from a “blueprint” of a person based on CT scans. Made of photosensitive acrylic and methacrylic resins, which are made from petrochemicals like propylene, a surgeon can now practice on that model before entering the operating room.

In some cases, of course, surgery isn’t enough. A new heart, or heart parts, are needed to save a life. One day that will be done, too.

Here’s an example. The German PolyKARD project is developing biomimetic polymers, which are petrochemical-based materials that can imitate the elasticity and durability of organs such as heart tissue. Using 3D printing and elecrospinning, these polymers – based on non-isocyanate polyurethanes – can be used to produce replacement implants for the pericardium, heart valves and blood vessels that match an individual hearts unique features. These novel urethanes are made from ethylene carbonate, which starts with the building block ethylene, and aniline, which starts with benzene.


Listen up, ears are also possible to make using petrochemical-based materials and living cells. A team of Chinese researchers have grown a fully formed human ear using a patient’s own stem cells in a biocompatible matrix.

How it works: A 3D-printed polymer mold of an ear is used to make a polymer “scaffold” that degrades over time, leaving behind a full ear of mature cartilage from stem cells. The scaffold is a multilayered composite of polyglycolic acid from ethylene, polylactic acid from fermentation of carbohydrates, and polycaprolactone from benzene. The Chinese medical team has already performed implant surgery on children with a congenital disease the prevents the ear from forming naturally. Think of it — combining biological and synthetic chemicals – to solve some of medicines most vexing challenges.

In case you’re wondering, all of these polymers are made from petrochemicals. And of course, petrochemicals are made by breaking apart molecules of naphtha from petroleum and ethane, propane and butane from natural gas liquids, which get turned into chemical building blocks that are found in thousands of products we use daily.


Bionic bones? They’re not just used for Anatomy class anymore. Using a 3D printer, a team at Swansea University in Wales is developing a composite of bio- and petrochemical-based polymers to make synthetic bones in the exact shape a patient requires. One of the key polymers is a biodegradable polymer called polycaprolactone, which is derived from benzene.

And if you want to go the fully synthetic route, chemists have developed an advanced, biocompatible polymer called polyether ether ketone (starts with the petrochemical building blocks toluene and benzene) that is used for reconstructive surgery. Its physical properties surpass titanium and other traditional materials.


There’s far more to these polymer applications than the eyes can see. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have been able to create a “bionic eye” using silver nanoparticles encapsulated in polyacrylate (from propylene) that act as a conductive connector, and also high-performance polymer‐based photodectors based on conductive polymers like PEDOT:PSS (from butene and benzene) and poly-TPD (from benzene) that can convert light into electricity. Even the solvents that enable complete and consistent disbursement of these tiny particles are based on petrochemicals, such as toluene and chlorobenzene. Accomplished within a hemispherical glass dome, the process to create the eye takes just one hour, according to researchers. This development could soon improve people’s eyesight and allow the blind to see.

A similar study in South Korea 3D printed custom eyeballs to fit the patient’s eye socket, and used a biocompatible photopolymer as the base material to finish the eye.


Even skin has skin in the 3D-printing game. The conventional process of engineering skin tissue has drawbacks, including a lack of hair follicles and sweat glands and abnormal or excessive formation of blood cells.

Processes using petrochemical-based materials can help reconstruct the skin’s important anatomical functions. Skin cells can now be mixed with a suitable hydrogel, like gelatin methacrylate (GelMA), N-hydroxysuccinimide (NHS) and 1-ethyl-3-(3-dimethylaminopropyl)-N-carbodiimide (EDC), cross-linked by polyethylene glycol (PEG), and printed in a bioprinter. Under in vitro conditions, that printed skin construct is allowed to mature before being implanted into the defected area of a patient. This is especially useful to heal burn victims.

These advanced hydrogel names may be a mouthful, but they all start with simple petrochemical building blocks. Propylene is used for the methacrylate part of the GelMA, butane is used to make the NHS and ethylene is the starting point for the EDC. Even the PEG cross-linking agent start with the petrochemical building block ethylene.

What these medical advancements promise is a future where it is rare for anyone loses their life while waiting for a transplant. It’s one that will allow the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and mobility for the disabled. One that won’t just save lives, but for many will provide a new lease on life. Thankfully, it’s no longer just a dream.


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