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Who Will Build Your Replacement Kidney?

"New heart valve -- stat!" demands the cardiac surgeon. The OR technician turns some dials on the 3-D bio-printer, flips a switch, and the heart valve is created layer by layer. Soon it will be sewn into the patient's heart with no fear of rejection. Why? Because it was created from the patient's own cells.

The above scene is not as farfetched as you may think. Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have been working on bio-printing technology for several years. Even though they have not yet printed up a human body part, they do envision human trials in two to five years. These first body parts will be simple tissues such as skin, vertebral disks, and knee cartilage. Complex organs such as livers and kidneys would be further down the road.

More than one way to grow your own ...
Bio-printing is just one avenue of organ regeneration research. Researchers have also built human bladders and urethras by seeding bioabsorbable molds the size and shape of the desired organs with the patients' own cells. This procedure has been successfully performed, with a handful of patients receiving new bladders more than ten years ago.

A growing need ...
With more than 110,000 people in the United States alone waiting for donor organs, and many more worldwide, the huge potential of regenerative medicine has not gone unnoticed by mainstream companies.

¬†Medical technology giant Medtronic (NYSE: MDT  ) has already bought into a small biotech company affiliated with the Wake Forest Institute that specializes in the bioabsorbable mold technique of organ regeneration. Medtronic's payoff would be the licensing rights for the smaller company's "Neo-Kidney Augment" program (if it makes it through clinical trials). Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) has also bought into that same company.

Brave new world for investors
This is such a new area of medicine that any direct investment in organ regeneration would be highly speculative, but there are ways to invest indirectly.

Medtronic and Johnson & Johnson may be your best route. They are solid, dividend paying companies that are not betting the farm on organ regeneration, but their investments would put them in a fine position to profit from any breakthroughs.

For investing in companies that are already making the 3-D printers that could potentially be used in production bio-printers, look to 3-D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) and Stratasys (Nasdaq: SSYS  ) . They are already being used to build dental crowns and custom prosthetic limbs. Once the bio-kinks are worked out of printing up organs, then I think they'd be ready.

Keep your eye on further developments with the above companies by clicking here to put them on your Watchlist.

Fool contributor Dan Radovsky owns shares of Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson & Johnson, 3-D Systems, and Medtronic. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Stratasys and Johnson & Johnson, as well as creating a diagonal call position in Johnson & Johnson. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. 

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (5)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On September 03, 2011, at 1:53 PM, woo131 wrote:

    You think printing a metallic or plastic part and growing a biological replacement part are similar? The former uses heat to make the 3-D thingee, whereas the latter uses time (lots of time) and growth serum in an incubator. The only use for 3-D printing in the bio world is to make the disposable mold, perhaps. Don't write science fiction and don't quit your day job.

  • Report this Comment On September 04, 2011, at 7:04 AM, bioquarkceo wrote:

    Most of this work is admirable, but the best bioreactor for gold standard organogenesis / morphogenesis is still the human body - perfection of biologic epimorphic regeneration in humans makes ex-vivo bioprinitng obsolete -

  • Report this Comment On September 05, 2011, at 9:39 AM, XMFDRadovsky wrote:


    This isn't science fiction. Scientists have been working on this process for a while now. In a previous life I edited a video news story about organ regeneration, which included a segment on bio-printing. In this case it was the printing of a mouse heart using a modified off-the-shelf HP ink jet printer. This was over three years ago.The link to that story is here:

    Here is the link to a story in The Economist from last year about bio-printing organs:

    You just have to Google "bio-printing" to come up with many more links.


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