3D printing is revolutionizing medical science
When Halley’s Comet appeared in our inner solar system in 1986—the same year IBM unveiled the first laptop computer—engineer Chuck Hall had other things on his mind. He was busy patenting his new invention—3D printing, known as stereolithography. The potential benefits in manufacturing seemed huge—rapid prototyping, quick design iteration, and cost-effective low volume production runs.
Since then, the technology has massively evolved, and is invaluable to a wide assortment of companies from automobile makers to electronics manufacturers. It can be argued, however, that its greatest benefit to mankind involves the breakthrough applications medical science is now developing for 3D printing.
What is 3D Printing?
3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is a process for making a solid object from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes, where successive layers of material are laid down until an entire object is created. Materials used in additive manufacturing include plastics, metals, and recently glass, courtesy of MIT research. An offshoot technology, 3D bioprinting, prints tissue-based structures layer by layer using hydrogels infused with living cells.
From Artificial Limbs to Living Tissue
When researchers began working to apply 3D printing to the field of medicine, they envisioned using it for dental implants and customized prosthetics. Today, even noses and ears, as well as hands and legs with complex component parts printed within the same structure, have been created.
Products such as Open Bionics’ Dextrus 3D printed robotic hand can be modeled specifically for its wearer. If you can believe it, 3D printed prosthetics for animals are also being made, such as bird beaks, legs for dogs and cats, and feet for ducks.
As exciting as 3D printed implants and prosthetics are, medical researchers are always envisioning something even greater. As the world rang in the 21st century, medical scientists from around the globe began focusing on 3D bioprinting—applying the technology to living cells and human tissue, bones, skin, heart valves, joints… even entire organs. Since then, they have bioprinted blood vessels and sheets of cardiac tissue that “beat” like a real heart, a functioning miniature kidney, skin cells, a meniscus (the piece of cartilage that cushions the knee and other joints), and more.
Although bioprinting is positioned to transform medicine, it’s still a technology in its infancy, and the rate of commercialization won’t be as rapid as we’ve seen with additive manufacturing. Compared with non-biological printing, 3D bioprinting involves complexities, such as the choice of materials, cell types, growth and differentiation factors, and technical challenges related to the sensitivities of living cells and the construction of tissues. Addressing these issues requires an integration of technologies from the fields of engineering, biomaterials science, cell biology, physics, and medicine.
The Next Wave of Bioprinting Breakthroughs
Factors driving the future of 3D bioprinting include sophisticated printers and advances in regenerative medicine. Biologically sophisticated CAD (computer aided design) software is also critical. With an inanimate object like a Star Wars action figure, a 3D scanner can create a CAD file in minutes and upload the design to a 3D printer for replication. There is no equivalent for biologically sophisticated software—yet.
Hod Lipson, a robotics engineer at Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab, explains, “An MRI doesn’t tell you where the cells are. We’re just completely in the dark in terms of the blueprints. That’s half the puzzle. There’s also no Photoshop—no tools to move cells around.”
The answer? Scientists are working on it! And when all of the technology comes together, 3D bioprinting will revolutionize medicine like we have never seen.
The future of 3D bioprinting looks extraordinary. In roughly 20 years, we could be printing human organs ready for transplant, rendering the use of cadaver organ and tissue donors obsolete. And in 2061, when Halley’s Comet has its next close encounter with our planet, bioprinting may actually be what’s for dinner. Yes, scientists are planning to 3D print all sorts of things, including your evening steak and potatoes!
By Annette Brooks
Sources: 3DPrintingIndustry.com, 3DPrint.com, NCIB.NLM.NIH.gov, PopSci.com, LineShapeSpace.com, Time.com, UPI.com