3D Printed Kidneys Offer Hope — and Uncertainty

Her high cheekbones, flawless complexion and svelte figure belie the fact that 35-year-old Darvece Monson is battling a disease that promises to keep her life in turmoil. The Chicago nurse needs a kidney transplant, and traditional options look bleak. She’s hoping a 3D printed kidney is the answer.

A 3D printed kidney is comprised of the patient’s or close relative’s cells cultivated in a Petri dish and, using a biomedical printer, formed into the size of the patient’s normal kidney, which is then implanted.

“I think of everything I have done, and only God knows,” says the mother of an 8-year-old daughter about trying to find a kidney match.

Monson has endured six-hour hemodialysis sessions three days a week for the past year. She says it’s the dialysis regimen that causes her to embrace the possibility of receiving a 3D printed organ; actually receiving one would reduce the waiting time to weeks rather than years in addition to the possibility of rejection, the chief concern in organ transplants.

“It is a blessing that I am in Chicago, African-American and female; that also is my curse,” Monson chuckles. It is not double-talk. She says she is facing the reality that although Black Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, we also make up 35 percent of people receiving dialysis treatments. That translates into approximately 25,000 of the 70,000 people of all races on the waiting lists.

While African-American 3D kidney recipient numbers are low, Monson says her petite stature could also block her from receiving one soon. “Doctors want to match a donor from a similar body type. I’m a small Black woman who happens to be athletic. There aren’t a lot of women who are the same and donating,” she says.

Yolanda Becker, director of Kidney and Pancreas Program at University of Chicago Medical Center and vice president of the United Network of Organ Sharing, says the small potential donor pool is further reduced because people who are obese, diabetic or have high blood pressure are ruled out as donors. “We just don’t have enough (live) kidneys to go around,” she says.

Becker adds that despite the promise of 3D printing, the wait for people like Monson might not be significantly shorter. She says the obstacles to using the process lie in the machine’s cost (which is estimated to be in the $850,000 range) the fact that physicians must be trained and “science hasn’t caught up with the technology.”

Washington, D.C.-based urologist Phillip Proctor agrees that extensive training for doctors would be required for the 3D printed kidney transplant to be successful. The technology regarding transplantation is in its early stages and hasn’t been vigorously tested. “[With regard to] anything new, the biggest issue is to look at numbers—and successes and failures,” Proctor says.

He adds that current transplant methods are “the gold standard,” and any new technology or procedures must prove to be better.

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Monson is on the transplant list in Illinois and in neighboring Wisconsin. Moving to the top of the Illinois waiting list, she says, will take seven years, despite Chicago’s medical reputation for having one of the best transplant hospitals in the world; the University of Chicago Medicine Center. Wisconsin presents the more promising option; the transplant calculus suggests she can receive another kidney in about three years.

In the meantime, Monson says she is optimistic about receiving a new kidney. Several friends and family members have tested to see if they are a match. Unfortunately, no one is, but that doesn’t get her down.

“Donors sometimes get hung up on finding the perfect match. That doesn’t matter. Just be willing,” she urges.

This story originally ran in the September issue of EBONY.  Pick up the magazine on newsstands now or subscribe right HERE.  


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