The Reality of 3D-Printed Body Parts

The Reality of 3D-Printed Body Parts
Adam Clark Estes

A husband-wife team of researchers at Washington State University can manufacture bones with 3D printing technology, a breakthrough idea they hope will change the future of medicine. This year, scientists have also developed 3D printing techniques that can be used to create human organs as well as the blood vessels that would connect them to the recipient and could one day solve the problem of organ donor shortages. We know what you're thinking. Pretty soon science is going to 3D-print a horrifying real-life Frankenstein that will eat all our kittens. That would be a funny movie, but the science fiction-like reality is much more promising.

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For now, 3D printing's use in medicine is still largely confined to the lab. Susmita Bose, the WSU bone printer, has been developing artificial bone-like materials with her husband, Amit Bandyopadhyay, since the late 1990s, and attracted attention this week with successful in vitro growing actual bones around artificial scaffolds. They're not exactly printing human skeletons quite yet. However, artificial bone scaffolds would enable doctors to repair defects or injuries without taking a bone graph from elsewhere in the patients body or using a synthetic mesh material that can have negative long-term effects. Produced using a 3D inkjet printer -- that's right -- and a bone-like ceramic, Bose's scaffolding harmlessly dissolves as new bone grows around it. "We have tested it in small animal models and we have seen that bone grows over them very well," Bose told The Atlantic Wire. "We have also tested them with human bone cells and we've seen that bone will grow over them very well."

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Bose says that the capability to print load-bearing bones is a ways off, so your 3D-printed Frankenstein fears can be put to rest for a few years. The technology has been improving rapidly, though, and 2011 has been a watershed year. Over the past few years, researchers have been improving techniques to produce biological materials like organs with 3D printers, but when a team of German researchers announced that they had perfected a method to print blood vessels as well, the prospect of actually transplanting these 3D-printed organs into living patients improved. Inevitably, the human body wants to reject artificial materials, but with controlled chemistry, scientists can better replicate our cellular makeup and also embed drugs that help the body accept the transplants. While the material's different for organs, Bose says that the bone-like powder she uses to print her scaffolds is very similar to actual bone. She's cautious about making an exact estimate, but Bose thinks that we could start seeing 3D printers in hospitals in the near future. "Oftentimes we're excited with the scientific and technological findings but it is difficult to mimic nature," Bose said, when we asked her when 3D-printing would become common practice. It could be five years; it could be 50. "It is really very important for all of us to realize that bringing any scientific and technological innovation to real-life application requires interdisciplinary approach," she said.

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But imagine: it would truly be a new marriage of medicine and technology. With the help of engineers and biologists, 3D printers could be installed in hospitals. If a doctor needed a body part, he would send a CT scan to a specialist who would produce a computer-aided design (CAD) file that would provide the 3D printer with detailed -- we're talking molecular -- instructions for printing the part. A surgeon would implant (install?) the transplant, and with luck, the patient would make a speedy, easy recovery and be a little bit of a cyborg. As we were talking through the process, though, Bose kept repeating a very important point: "It is very difficult to mimic nature."

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