KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The technology is still years away, but researchers believe they are on the right track for a major breakthrough with organ transplants. Instead of taking organs from donors, organs would be created using a person’s stem cells and a 3D printer.

It sounds like a science fiction story, but it’s closer to reality than we realize. 3D printers are already used widely. They use pliable material and computer-aided design to manufacture virtually anything you can imagine; everything from a cup or a bowl to a bedframe or a clock.

3D printers have already been used to help make prosthetics and other medical devices, but functioning organs is on a whole different level.

According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, more than 104,000 people in the United States alone are on a waiting list for an organ transplant. More than 42,000 transplant surgeries were performed in the U.S. last year. But sadly, an average of 17 people still die each day waiting for one.

Dr. Karim Essani, a professor of biology and immunology at Western Michigan University, believes the key is developing ways to use stem cells from the person in need of an organ to create a new one — a process called 3D bioprinting.

“I really don’t think transplantation is a surgical problem. Transplantation is an immunological problem,” Essani told News 8. “The process of rejection is a very important factor in this, too, because now there’s a deficiency in the organs. … (If the organ is made from the patient’s genetic material), then there is going to be no problem. But the moment you are bringing the tissues or the cells or the bioglue from other sources, which the immune system recognizes as foreign, it may take a little bit of time, but ultimately it is going to be rejected.”

A young boy plays with a new prosthetic hand made by a 3D printer to specifically fit his arm. (Getty Images file)

3D bioprinting is still in the early stages because, unlike the plastic needed to make a cup or a bowl, a living, functioning organ requires complex materials. They require several types of stem cells and in specific places.

“In every organ there are so many different types of cells, and these cells happen to be coming from our body, but there are differentiators,” Essani explained. “There is a stem cell for the heart. Then, there’s a stem cell for the valve in the heart, and then another stem cell for the muscles in the heart.”

Because of those complex factors, Essani doesn’t expect the science to make a major impact for at least another 20 years, but the concept is tantalizing for how innovative it could be.

It has the potential to save millions of lives, not only by wiping away organ transplant waiting lists but by helping people who may not be sick enough to qualify for the list or people with addictions who may be prevented from joining the transplant list. 3D bioprinting could also be used to make specialized organs personalized to each person’s specific needs or body shape.

“This technology has enormous potential. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Essani said.