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Woman receives worlds first 3D printed windpipe transplant

It took less than two weeks to print and was transplanted into the patient in a half-day surgery

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According to BBC Science Focus, the world’s first 3D printed organ – which is partly made from another person’s stem cells – has been successfully transplanted into a patient, in Korea. A team of scientists, doctors, and engineers became the first to perform a 3D printed windpipe transplant at Seoul St Mary’s Hospital in 2023. The patient is a female in her 50s who lost part of her windpipe (AKA her trachea) after having surgery to remove thyroid cancer.

The patient’s new organ is built with cartilage and mucosal lining  – the moist lining in the lungs and nose. The scientists obtained nasal stem cells and cartilage cells from other patients to create these elements – cells that were discarded during a procedure to treat nasal congestion and from a nasal septum surgery. However, the 3D printed windpipe also contains polycaprolactone (PCL) for structural support, as well as bio-ink.

The PCL is expected to last only five years, with the scientists hoping that the artificial organ will help the patient’s body regenerate her own trachea before it biodegrades.

According to the hospital, existing treatments following trachea removal cannot restore the original organ – and are also complicated and dangerous. This breakthrough could revolutionize treatment for patients with thyroid cancer, congenital anomalies, or trauma to the windpipe.

One of the procedure’s breakthroughs is that the patient did not require any immunosuppressants and, six months after the operation, the windpipe is not only healing well but new blood vessels are starting to form.

The study is currently being peer-reviewed for potential publication in a scientific journal.

3D printing a bespoke windpipe

To match the windpipe’s size and dimensions to be patient-specific, the team first collected the patient’s CT and MRI data so they could design it to fit perfectly. In this case, the windpipe had to be less than 5cm (2 inches) long.

It took less than two weeks to print and was transplanted into the patient in a half-day surgery.

The procedure is a result of the collaboration between the Catholic University of Korea and Gachon University and the biomedical engineering company that made the printer, T&R Biofab. It brings together 20 years of research, with the earliest lab studies dating back to 2004. During this time, the lead researchers collected lab data, including from tests on animals including beagles. According to T&R Biofab, this supporting data was necessary for approval by the regulating body.

T&R Biofab designed the printer to specialize in printing hollow tubular structures, with high-precision technology to enable scientists to create such a personalized organ.

The bespoke printer was designed specifically for Seoul St Mary’s Hospital, meaning that it is not currently accessible for use outside of the hospital, but T&R Biofab may expand its production in the future.

“While it’s too soon to say that 3D bioprinting could be the solution for the current shortage of organs for transplantation, it definitely increases the hopes to partially solve the issue for some organs or some specific indications, or at least fill the gap between classic medical devices and organ transplants,” said Dr. Paulo Marinho, Head of Scientific Strategy at T&R Biofab. “An optimistic example of that is our ongoing research published in Nature Communications in 2019, where we printed stem cell-derived heart patches to assist the infarcted heart of rats. This is a clear tangible example of where this technology might lead in the not-so-distant future.”

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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