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Prototype Kidneys 3D Printed

May 14, 2014 10:25 AM EDT

In an effort to advance the medical applications of 3D printing technologies, the University of Connecticut (UConn) challenged their graduating class of chemical engineers to design 3D printable prototypes for fully-functioning artificial kidneys.

The kidneys were designed by two teams of UConn engineers for their year-long senior designee project, and were crafted in a partnership with ACT Group, a commercial 3D printing company.

According to a May 9 UConn press release, each team took a slightly different approach, but both managed to make functioning synthetic kidneys that could, in theory, serve in place of the real organ. The prototypes were designed with 3D printing technologies so that they could be produced efficiently, but with room to make patient-individualized tweaks to the design of each "organ."

This reflects recent applications of quickly-advancing 3D printing technologies, where medical professionals are realizing that the customizable nature of 3D printing can allow for patient-specific changes to a standard design. This is already seen in things like joint replacements and custom casts. The London Science Museum even featured the first application of 3D printing to help entirely re-construct a man's face after his face and skull were heavily altered following a motorcycle accident. The "pioneer" application of 3D printing in reconstructive surgery was showcased in the exhibit "3D: Printing the Future."

According to UConn, this latest project was intended to take 3D printing applications another step forward, showing the potential the technology could have in addressing the transplantable human organ shortage this country faces.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, there are nearly 100,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list in the United States with an additional 2,500 new patients getting added to the list each month. However, only about 14,000 of these transplants take place each year, as the US organ banks simply don't have enough of the organs to spare.

To combat this shortage, stem cell researchers have been working night and day to discover safe ways to grow transplant-ready human organs in the lab. Human genome guru David Venter recently launched his own initiative to make xenotransplantation - the transplanting of genetically altered animal organs - a viable alternative. Now, with the craft of these first two prototypes, UConn suggests that functioning complex human organs can even be crafted synthetically.

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