In the early 1900s, scientists began asking themselves if they could mechanically recreate organ function. John Jacob Abel, Leonard Rowntree, and B.B. Turner took this academic curiosity to the next level by inventing an out-of-body apparatus that safely and successfully conducted kidney dialysis on a dog.
The team’s invention inspired the broader scientific community to pursue the development of artificial organs.
1958, Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden
Else Marie Larsson’s husband faced life-threatening heart issues. Determined to cure him, Else followed news of promising heart research to cardiac surgeon Ake Senning and engineer Rune Elmqvist. Her unexpected visit inspired the researchers to speed up their work on a fully implantable pacemaker.
"An energetic, beautiful woman entered my lab on the 6th October 1958 and told me that I had to implant a pacemaker into her husband,” Senning wrote about the encounter.
“I told her we had not completed our experimental series and we did not have a pacemaker for human clinical implantation. She demanded: ‘So make one!’. That day she drove several times from Elmquist's electronic lab and back and finally convinced us.”
Within a few days, Arne Larsson had surgery to receive the first transplantable pacemaker, a device made of batteries, circuits, and coils wrapped in a biocompatible package the precise dimensions of a Kiwi shoe polish can.
Larson lived to be 86 years old; he died of a condition unrelated to his pacemaker.
This transplantation success launched decades of implantable device innovations that allowed patients to live long, functional lives.
Present and future
A bioengineering team at UCLA learned how to create biomaterials using a 3D printer. The team managed to create incredibly complex materials by perfecting prints of simple triangles before pursuing advanced models of blood vessels, connective tissues, and tumors.
The technology could one day be leveraged to create complex transplantable tissues from a variety of materials. In the future, we may be able to print tissues on demand without waiting for donors or taking costly steps to preserve tissues before surgery.
The ability to print the tissues promises to make transplantation an even more efficient—and an even more life-saving—process.