By Brandon Wood
Biological 3D printing transplanted is very promising field as it holds the potential to reduce the amount of replace donor wait lists. However, there are some arguments against pursuing this technology, as opponents claim that the economic repercussions make the future technology not worth investing time into.
Biological 3D printing, or 3D bio printing, is a process of additive manufacturing using biologically compatible substances (ie; cells, proteins, fats) to create anatomical structures such as tissues, bones, and so forth. The hope is that one day this technology will develop to the point where it can be used to turn stem cells into fully functioning organs that can be transplanted into patients, but much more progress is needed.
One argument against the technology is that giving anyone a 3D printer and enough money to print organs will inevitably lead to a spike in black market activity. With new biological printers, people could sell organs cheaply without adhering to important standards or regulations.
Dominic Young ’16 says, “While I personally believe that we should continue to develop this technology, there is certainly a discussion to be had concerning black market activity. Technology like this that satisfies such a great need, and given the powerful economic incentives, unregistered and illegal substitutes are very attractive for the buyer who needs a cheap alternative to save his or her life, and the seller, who can make money off these people without having to deal with regulation.”
This is a problem already rooted in the organ donor system. According to an article by Denis Campbell, and Nicola Davidson published in The Guardian, the World Health Organization estimates around 10,000 black market operations involving human organs occur annually. These black market operations are both unsafe and unclean. Furthermore, organs are removed without systematic regulation which leads to dangerous surgical practices, thus putting the lives of the donor and the recipient in danger.
Despite the dangers of a potential black market, these downsides pale in comparison to the possibility of removing donor lists all together. Dr. MacRae Maxfield, a chemistry teacher and mentor in Tech’s research program, argued this point: “At the moment, we don’t have the ability to [reduce or replace donor lists], the idea is very promising, and we will absolutely be able to do it down the road. And, between 3D printing advancements, stem cell research, protein engineering, and genetic engineering, we will certainly have the technology soon.”
Removing organ donor wait lists, on which an average of 21 people die every day, would arguably be worth the cost of potentially spurring black market trade, and certainly worth it in term of loss of life.
Dr. Risa Parlo said, “The vast majority of scientific progress comes with the risk that people will do bad things with it. A student could go look up how to make a weapon online, that doesn’t mean we should shut down the internet. This technology is on the brink of becoming reality, and it holds the potential to save countless lives.”
Others would argue that technology like this lends itself to monopolies, similar to the early years of genetic engineering where companies used there patents to control entire sections of the agricultural industry. The fear is that something like a process for building a heart can be patented, and that patent can be used to drive up prices of these products beyond reason.
James Bacchi summarizes the counter-argument concisely: “I feel that there is something different from monopolizing a genetic code and a way of manufacturing something like a liver. The latter would require many complex steps that could be improved upon, whereas genes are an unchanging set of information. Monopolizing, or even patenting something like this would be incredibly difficult, as it will mostly likely require the collaboration of many different labs, all building off each other’s work. Either way, this kind of advancement could give us access to a potentially unlimited supply of organs.”
Some would argue against organ printing, claiming it would lead to black market activity and monopolies; however, others would argue that the risks are certainly worth it, and monopolization isn’t necessarily going to play a role. Either way, it seems that the use 3D bioprinting remains conflicted.
Photos taken from popsci.com