According to the American Heart Association, heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, refers to a variety of different problems that affect that heart, many of which are connected to atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries making it difficult for the heart to pump blood as needed. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States and is responsible for approximately 610,000 deaths per year, a stunning 1 in 4 of deaths. The statistics are no less ominous in Europe, Australia, Latin America, or sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the only place that appears to be the exception to this rule is Asia, where the incidence of heart disease-related deaths are as low as 1/6 of that which is experienced in the United States.
In addition to the hearts that are rendered unsalvageable by the ravages of heart disease, people with heart deformations and abnormalities may require new hearts in order to survive their conditions. Statistics collected by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network show that since 1988, over 70,000 people have undergone heart transplant surgery in the US alone. While this may seem like a large number, it doesn’t reflect the number of people who actually need a heart transplant, approximately 1/3 of whom don’t receive the heart they need. It’s an unfortunate state of nature that in order to transplant a heart, the person whose heart is being used must have died, and in a way that leaves their heart sufficiently undamaged to be of use. Adding to the difficulties associated with transplant are the issues of rejection, the impacts of the drug regimens, and the monumental costs of the procedure and post-op maintenance therapies.
But what if we could 3D print a heart specifically designed for each patient?
BIOLIFE4D is a pioneering biotech company that wants to do just that. This isn’t just some pipe dream of a wild-eyed scientist clutching a work of science fiction. It’s not just around the corner either. Bioprinting, the creation of human tissue with specially designed 3D printers, is no longer a novel concept. Tissue is being produced for testing and with the ultimate hope of being able to create fully functioning organs. So far, no one has reached that gold standard, but BIOLIFE4D continues to push ahead with its research after having undergone some very successful fundraising.
One early sign of the promising nature of BIOLIFE4D’s efforts comes in the production of a human heart patch. These bioprinted 3D cardiac patches can be used in patients with acute heart failure to restore lost myocardial contractility, and current research had indicated a development time of 6 to 8 months. BIOLIFE4D, however, was able to produce such a patch in a matter of days and is now turning its focus to the creation of other constructs like valves, blood vessels and a mini-heart as it seeks to progress to 3D bioprinting a full human heart. Dr. Ravi Birla, the Company’s Chief Science Officer and head of BIOLIFE4D’s new research lab in Houston, explained the exciting nature of this accelerated timeline:
“We are extremely excited to have achieved this milestone and to successfully demonstrate our ability to 3D print human cardiac tissue. When we began this process, we knew this would be a key step in validating our technology and scientific approach, so we are pleased to be able to have accomplished this so quickly. We have always believed that our scientific approach, as well as the tremendous team we have assembled, positioned us for rapid scientific accomplishment. The speed at which we bioprinted 3D human cardiac patches, within days, is unheard of within the scientific community. These efforts clearly demonstrate our ability to bioprint human tissue and provide a clear and rapid pathway towards bioprinting human hearts.”
The process that they have developed is one which allows them to reprogram a patient’s own white blood cells to iPS cells and then further task those cells with taking on the roles of the various cardiac cells. Those cells are then used to create the cardiac patch, and the next step is to create increasingly complex constructions using those cells, eventually leading to the ability to 3D print a human heart from the very cells produced by the recipient’s body. Steven Morris, CEO of BIOLIFE4D, expressed his enthusiasm over the results of their most recent investigations:
“This is a tremendous time for BIOLIFE4D and we could not be prouder to have accomplished this scientific landmark in such a short period of time. From the beginning, our mission has been to utilize our technology to save lives. Today, we believe we are one step closer to ultimately achieving that goal.”
The benefits of the development of such capabilities are immediately apparent and as BIOLIFE4D continues to deliver on its promises, it is certain to receive more robust funding, resulting in even greater advances.
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