Organ player

There was uproar years ago in my native America when baseball superstar Mickey Mantle, known as much for hard-drinking as home runs, received a donor liver to replace his cirrhotic one in a day.

Many cried foul and alleged the Hall of Famer was given priority treatment over other patients because of his celebrity status. Sadly it is true that most patients wait on lists for organ donations for years and often become more sick or sometimes die as they count the days go by.

In the future, however, most of us may be able to access the same quick Mickey-Mantle treatment with new technology that actually ‘prints’ human tissues and organs on demand. 

The inventors at California-based Invetech are promoting their ‘Organovo’ as the world’s first production model 3D bio-printer. Think of it like an inkjet printer with the capabilities of producing three dimensional spare parts for the body.

Such devices, known as rapid-prototyping machines, are currently used in industry for quickly making components and models. In these cases machines will deposit droplets of powders or polymers that will fuse and build layer by layer until the desired object has been formed. The researchers in California found this could also be done with biological materials.

Keith Murphy, chief executive of Organovo, explained a surgeon would simply place liver cells, for example, on a preformed scaffold and let the bio-printer – led by an intuitive software program – build the cells in a desired 3D pattern.

Organovo is currently trying to get its printers into the hands of researchers around the world to see how far the technology can go.

I do wonder how a technology like this could impact society in the future. The benefits, after all, are clear. It could help thousands of patients currently waiting for new organs receive the treatment they need faster.

However there is no doubt there will be someone out there who sees this as an excuse to further abuse their body. Already many of us ignore the government’s recommended daily units of alcohol and imagine what would happen if we knew we could get a new liver – if needed – on demand?

It’s a tempting view to take, but these ‘spare parts’ can only keep us going for so long and will not cure the problem that made us sick in the first place. Even Mickey Mantle had made this realisation later in his life before dying in 1995 at the age of 63.

Reflecting back on his days of boozing, he was quoted in one wistful moment, ‘If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.’