3-D Printing’s Past and Present
If you had a 3-D printer (which you could in 2-3 days, and for under $300), you could now 3-D print an entire office around it. You could print a desk, a pen and pencil holder, even a chess set for when you get bored.
3-D printing has exploded since about 2005, when the RepRap Project sped up innovation in the field by developing tons of free open source design plans. There seems no end to the amount of manufacturing objects that can be reproduced via 3-D printer at a relatively low cost. Recently, the technology has developed even a step further, as 3-D bioprinting begins to apply the 3-D printing innovations to the medical industry in very surprising ways.
Bioprinting takes 3-D printing, and applies it to human tissue. That’s right, human tissue. As the Medical Device Network explains, “bioprinters use a computer-guided pipette to layer living cells, referred to as bio-ink, on top of one another to create artificial living tissue in a laboratory.” Layer upon layer, 3-D bioprinting can stack living cells on top of one another in order to build an organ, the same way a 3-D printer might use layers of wood to build your office desk.
This 3-D printing technology is still developing, and as of this writing a transplant of a major organ hasn’t been reported. However, a recent article by Wired Magazine discussed a major breakthrough—a successful spinal cord transplant in a laboratory mouse. The mouse, whose spinal cord had a tiny section cut out of it, successfully received the 3-D printed vertebrae and integrated it into the mouse’s nervous system. The mouse’s spinal cord had been restored.
The Future of 3-D Printing
This is a huge step since, as the article points out, the eventual goal of 3-D bioprinting is to print “entire organs that can be grown and then transplanted into a patient.” The development of 3-D printing for prosthetic limbs and surgical scaffoldings are another great recent development, but the implications of being able to replicate tissue that can be used for transplant is revolutionary. If a medical facility could safely and (relatively) cheaply reproduce organs out of living tissue they have on hand, the list of patients in need of transplant might decrease dramatically.
There is certainly reason to pump the brakes on optimism, however briefly. For instance, the researchers who developed this vertebrae did so for a mouse whose spinal cord has been cut, while Wired points out that “most such injuries result from crushed, rather than cut or completely severed, spinal cord tissue.” Could a 3-D bioprinter develop a transplant that fits a more complicated wound? Also, though imitation “organoids” have been developed, working organs are still a subject of future research. That said, it does seem that we’re headed in the right direction, and fast.