Body Parts Factory: New 3D Printers will Allow Scientists to 'Print' Living Tissue

Let's give 'em a hand! Or a foot for that matter. How about even an ear or nose. Have a broken heart? Well, let's just see if we can make you a new one.

While there has been a ton of stories about how the advancement of 3D printing in manufacturing is becoming a game changer when it comes to prototyping and parts production and how it is also fueling a growing cottage and even home base businesses, the next big advancement, and in some ways more dramatic and life changing, is in medical research.

Obviously, scientists, futurists, doctors and even patients are looking forward to the day when a disinterested lab technician can flip a switch and boom! Twenty minutes later out pops a new lung or a kidney or, in my case, a new shiny face.

While this sort of instantaneous, nearly retail parts production is years and possibly decades away, a variance of the technology is already being seen in the fabrication of dental crowns, bridges, and implants; and also with prosthetics manufacturing. This use is already showing results and generating revenue.

Dentists can now take digitized scans of a patient's teeth; forward via email the image to a dental lab, and a new bridge, crown or whatever the patient needs can be printed up.  It's precise, affordable, and quicker and patients no longer have to go through the current process of having molds made from trays using foul-tasting and less accurate materials.

In February 2012, doctors in the Netherlands implanted a 3D printed prosthetic lower jaw into an 83 year old woman who suffered from chronic infections.  A California company, Bespoke Innovations, manufactures customized prosthetic limb coverings that perfectly match the look and function of the wearer's remaining limb.

Because of the speed and accuracy of 3D printing, doctors working from X-Rays and CAT scans can quickly have replacement bones produced for patients that were involved in accidents who might otherwise have to postpone life saving surgery or have a limb removed because of the urgency of the injury.

The true end goal of this technology, however, is to produce 3D printed organs and other life essential, um…parts. Up until now, scientists and researchers have been able to use 3D-printing to produce cartilage, muscle tissue and blood vessels.

In January 2013, researchers at Scotland's Heriot-Watt University, working in tandem with Scottish stem cell company, Roslin Cellab, announced that it is now possible to print using human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The significance of this breakthrough is two fold.

First, it won't be long now for scientists to produce living organs for transplant. These organs would be 'grown' using tissue from the recipient. Because of this, the risk of the body rejecting the organ is drastically lessened. Furthermore, current organ recipients need to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives after a transplant. Again, because the organ originated from the recipient, the need for these expensive drugs could potentially be eliminated.

Second, scientists and researchers can now 'fabricate' organs and tissue specifically for testing. While there may be some ethical gray areas regarding this and researchers might find some resistance from the religious community, the significance of understanding real human reactions to new drugs, reduced time from research to production, and the potential to completely remove the need for testing on animals, should override the concerns of critics.

You would think that this equipment and research is expensive…and you would be right.

However, one of the aspects of 3D printing is a certain DIYieness with enthusiasts and supporters. Yes, large manufacturers like Ford Motor Company have invested heavily and are embracing this new technology, but 3D printers are making their way into classrooms that don't have millions to spend on development or research.

Patrik D'haeseleer, a genomics, bioinformatics, and computational biology researcher from Lawrence Livermore National Lab, is currently running experiments on a printer built from the salvaged parts of an HP 5150 Inkjet printer and old CD drives, instead of custom designed hardware.  Software comes courteously from the DIYbio hackerspace, BioCurious, who have developed a system open to anyone with a serious interest in cell biology.

From auto parts to body parts- whether it's in the lab or on the factory floor of a giant multinational corporation or in the out of the way basement classroom where the 'weirdos' hang out, the applications and uses of 3D printing seem to be growing with each passing day.

Like the impact of the automobile, airplane and medical advances of the last century, 3D printing could be one of those inventions that affects the shape and defines this century and beyond.

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