3D-printed hearts: We'll have to wait a bit longer for the real thing

Heart disease and stroke are the leading killers of people globally. A tiny heart prototype made using a 3D printer shows progress, but scientists say we're a ways off being able to print organs for transplant.

It might sound like a sci-fi fantasy, but scientists are determined that one day we'll be able to 3D-print vital organs, like the heart, kidney or liver, to use in transplants.

Cardiovascular disease and stroke kill more people globally than anything else, according to the World Health Organization, and synthetic organs could help enormously in overcoming issues of organ shortage and the risks of patients' bodies rejecting them. 

A tiny, cherry-sized print

While we're not quite there yet, a new development from Israel shows we're only getting closer. A team of scientists at Tel Aviv University say they have successfully printed a miniature heart-shaped prototype using human tissue.

Read more: Heart attack risk highest on Christmas Eve, study says

Science | 07.12.2018

The tiny mold is about the size of a rabbit's heart — or a cherry — and can contract like a muscle, but doesn't have the ability to actually pump blood.

"People have managed to 3D-print the structure of a heart in the past, but not with cells or with blood vessels," Tal Dvir, who led the research, told a press conference.

Read more: Could pigs' hearts soon beat in human bodies?

The heart prototype was created using human tissue

Researchers created the heart using a biopsy of fatty tissue taken from a human patient. Using the patient's own tissue was particularly important in reducing the risk of implant rejection, Dvir said. 

Small blood vessels still pose a challenge 

But other scientists say we still have a long way to go before we're able to create a human heart suitable for transplants using 3D printing technology.

"The printed blood vessel network demonstrated in this study is still limited," Felix Schönrath, physician from the German Heart Center in Berlin, told DW.

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The surgeon described the Israeli prototype as a heart-shaped shell with two chambers, rather than something that could be considered an organ.

Many patients on heart-transplant lists die while waiting

Scientists are still yet to formulate a way of imaging all of the small-diameter blood vessels of the heart, Schönrath said, in order to create an accurate blueprint. Current 3D printers also remain limited by their resolution size. 

While the state of the Israeli researchers' 3D print was comparable with that of an embryo's heart, Dvir said larger human hearts require the same technology. 

The team hope to transplant the printed hearts into animal models in about a year's time.

Spice up your health

Garlic for high blood pressure

For some, this flavor bomb can be a source of awkwardness because of its strong aroma. But the sulphur-containing compound, Allicin, that is responsible for garlic's pungent odor is also its best asset: it contains antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. Eating garlic has been proven to regulate blood pressure and prevent thrombosis.

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Thyme for a nasty cough

While you might have only seen a few, there are over 200 different types of thyme. The most common is the "Thymus vulgaris" — the bush-like plant with tiny, but pungent leaves and small lilac-colored flowers. The naturally occuring Rosmarinic acid found in thyme is known to lower cholesterol levels. Thyme is also a traditional remedy for colds and is commonly used as an ingredient in cough syrup.

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Cinnamon for a speedy metabolism

Cinnamon is said to have an accelerating effect on the metabolism. But the fragrant spice does contain one particularly harmful element: coumarin. This naturally occurring flavor can lead to liver damage in sensitive people (although the damage can usually be reversed). Cassia cinnamon contains much larger quantities of coumarin compared to Ceylon cinnamon.

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Saffron to soothe the mind

If you want to treat yourself to the expensive, vivid red threads to embellish your spice collection, you'll also be doing your health a favor. Studies have shown that saffron has a positive effect on our psychological wellbeing and can help with depression. The smell of the spice alone is said to alleviate symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

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Anise for a stomach ache

Although anise and the star anise shown above are not botanically related, they both contain an essential oil that has a similar composition and is responsible for the liquorice-fennel smell. Anise is best known for its antispasmodic effect on the digestive tract. Both types of anise are also said to have anti-inflammatory properties.

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Ginger for inflammation

As far as taste is concerned, ginger might be a divisive one. But hardly anyone denies the beneficial effect of the root for fighting the onset of a cold. In Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, ginger has long been used as a remedy for inflammation — for example, in rheumatism or arthritis. The root also contains pain-relieving essential oils and antioxidants.

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Turmeric for, well, everything!

This bold, yellow-colored spice is commonly used as an ingredient in curry powder. It's said to have three main health benefits: it lowers cholesterol levels, has an antioxidant effect and reduces inflammation. And because it slows down age-related changes in the brain, it could reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.