Rich Parker, CHC ’87, is confident that there will come a day—maybe 20, 25 years from now—where patients suffering from a weak heart, damaged kidneys, or a failing liver won’t have to worry about waiting around for organ donations. They’ll be able to just print new ones.
As vice president of business and technology at Digilab, Parker is building the kinds of tools that can make that seemingly fantastical future a reality. One of his major projects is the company’s CellJet printer, which can arrange live human cells into layers of tissue. The printers are employed by biomedical researchers for any number of biological trials: making large collections of a patient’s cancer cells to test the effectiveness of different chemotherapy drugs; adding cactus genes to the cellular makeup of a lettuce plant to make a more drought resistant plant; or—perhaps their most spectacular use—building functional human organs.
So how exactly does someone print an organ? Researchers first harvest a bunch of cells from a patient and replicate them by the billions. The printer then layers these cells onto a frame that gives the organ its shape, and stem cells are added to direct the growth. “The great things about stem cells,” says Parker, the son of an engineer and a nurse, “is that they know what to do.” The organ is then incubated and—theoretically— ready for use.
So why aren’t we already building human hearts for needy donors? Parker says there are vital biological questions that need to be answered before this hits hospitals en masse: “Are we putting in the right amount of cells? What is the effect of the environment on the cells?” Research trials with the cell printer will take time, but Parker says there is a good reason for that. “The science needs to be validated,” he says. “But the technology is there.” —DAN MORRELL