Engineering students from the University of Connecticut successfully designed and created an artificial kidney using 3D printing technology, the latest in a string of separate but similar projects involving the development of 3D-printed body parts and organs.
Treatment for end stage renal disease (ESRD), either by dialysis or transplantation, places a heavy financial burden on patients and healthcare systems.
New digital health technologies have the potential to minimize the enormous cost of renal replacement therapy.
In particular, affordable 3D printed kidneys may one day replace expensive dialysis sessions or provide an alternative to patients who are not able to receive new live kidneys for lack of supply.
With this in mind, two groups of chemical engineering students in the University of Connecticut designed kidney prototypes using 3D printing technology as their year-long senior design project.
One group used electrodialysis and forward osmosis in their prototype, and the other group used hollow fiber membrane technology used in traditional hemodialysis treatments.
“The objective of the design project is to get these students to combine the latest technology and their chemical engineering knowledge, learned over their four years at UConn, to solve a technical problem where we can make a difference,”
Anson Ma, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and the Institute of Materials Science, said in a statement.
“Can they push the technology further?”
Assisted by 3D printing company ACT Group, the students printed a 3D shell of the prototype, since current 3D printing resolutions are still not low enough to print a structure that can filter and cleanse blood.
Instead, the artificial kidney can be installed with hollow fiber membranes similar to those found in traditional dialyzers.
But the 3D printed shell:
“can be used as a substrate for growth of biological material for ease of integration into the body,”
said Benjamin Coscia, one of the student-researchers, who presented the prototypes during UConn's School of Engineering Senior Design Demonstration Day.
“The biggest challenge in approaching the project was applying the engineering knowledge we’ve gained during our undergraduate years to a more complex biological application,”
said engineering student Guleid Awale.
“This forced us to come out of our comfort zone and rely on our problem-solving skills in order to come up with viable solutions,”
If successful, the 3D printing technology project can provide a low-cost but effective alternative to the approximately 2 million people who are on renal replacement therapy worldwide.
In the GCC countries, there is scarce data about ESRD incidence rates, but a 2012 meta-study said that
“Many reports have provided evidence of increasing prevalence of the most common causes of ESRD in the GCC such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes."
According to the study, majority of ESRD patients in the GCC countries are on hemodialysis. They would benefit from receiving 3D artificial kidneys if the technology ultimately makes it possible to receive these organs with similar risk compared to receiving real kidneys.
There have been many studies demonstrating how 3D printing technology can go beyond the hype and into applications.
These would impact healthcare, particularly replacing body parts with 3D printed ones, even transplanting live kidneys and livers straight from a 3D printer.
The UConn project recalls to mind a recent, similar project by Japanese surgeons who created 3D-printed tumor-containing kidneys for simulated cancer surgery.
Other scientists have also shown how a 3D model of a tumor itself can provide clues to curing cancer.