One of the most problematic aspects of chronic pancreatitis is that the damage is irreversible. Even worse, it tends to progress, often destroying more of the pancreas until major complications like diabetes set in. (See the Cleveland Clinic’s description of chronic pancreatitis.) Add in the fact that there is no cure, and it ends up being quite a dire prognosis.
Yet some of the most cutting-edge technology today offers promise: 3D printing. You may have heard of printers developed over the last decade that can print 3D objects from a variety of materials — usually resins or metals. At first the devices were used for figurines (such as the 3D set of my initials shown to the right), as well as rapid prototypes of fairly simple objects. This has evolved tremendously over the last several years; not only can 3D printers fabricate very complex parts and products, but huge 3D printers are used to fabricate entire buildings. At the same time the price of the devices has plummeted, so that entry level versions are affordable for consumers. (See an article in The Atlantic today predicting massive growth in 3D printing.)
Most exciting for our purposes, 3D printing can now utilize human tissue. Earlier this year, a San Diego company called Organovo announced that it used 3D printing to create liver tissue that remained stable for several days, performing some essential functions of the organ. And researchers at the University of Iowa are exploring “bioprinting a glucose-sensitive pancreatic organ that can be grown in a lab and transplanted anywhere inside the body to regulate the glucose level of blood.” (ThinkProgress, the Five Most Promising Uses of 3D Printing in Medicine) It seems a relatively short step from there to a treatment that could allow patients regain pancreatic function…or eventually even replace a failed pancreas entirely.
“Bioprinting” an entire viable organ is an incredibly ambitious goal, and despite promising developments there is still much hard work to be done. (See “Bioprinting Towards Organ Fabrication” for a curent in-depth analysis of the state of the science.) However, many pancreatitis sufferers don’t need an entire new organ — we need to stop the ongoing destruction and regain some degree of functionality. Given the lightning speed of progress in bioprinting right now, and the fact that the pancreas can indeed regenerate in certain ways, this is an area that should command our serious attention.
Actually, more than our attention. The pancreatitis community is diverse, committed and supportive. (See some examples of patient support groups.) We have to be — we face a debilitating, painful chronic disease with no reliable cure. I have to think that if we direct resources at supporting research into this area, help will finally be on the way.