At this point, you’ve probably heard of 3-D printing. It’s been used to create everything from guns to tiny fetuses for blind mothers. And, now, researchers have printed the tiniest human livers ever.
Researchers at UC San Diego printed tiny little livers just a half a millimeter deep and 4 millimeters across. New Scientist reports:
To create them, a printer builds up about 20 layers of hepatocytes and stellate cells – two major types of liver cell. Crucially, it also adds cells from the lining of blood vessels. These form a delicate mesh of channels that supply the liver cells with nutrients and oxygen, allowing the tissue to live for five days or longer. The cells come from spare tissue removed in operations and biopsies.
This isn’t just another 3D-printing project pursued for its cool factor. Despite being tiny, the livers are nearly fully functional. They can produce key proteins like albumin, and make plasma and transferrin, key chemicals that help the body funnel nutrients, drugs and hormones into the blood.
No one is going to get one of these little livers as a transplant, but the company’s statement says that they could be the future of medical research:
Not only can these tissues be a first step towards larger 3D liver, laboratory tests with these samples have the potential to be game changing for medical research. We believe these models will prove superior in their ability to provide predictive data for drug discovery and development, better than animal models or current cell models
So, rather than transplanting these livers into a person, the company can swamp them out for human subjects or livers harvested from pigs in tests of drugs and treatments.
More from Smithsonian.com: