The union of 3D printing and medicine could alter the very essence of life.

3D printing is old news

A few years back 3D printing emerged as a miraculous technology that had us all impressed. It started by utilising somewhat moldable materials like paper, powdered metal, carbon fiber and graphene embedded in plastics, conductive carbomorph, nitinol or just plain plastic. You could make virtually anything, instantly, using one of those multi-dimensional modellers. Yes, anything… which led researchers to the wild idea of feeding less traditional types of raw materials into 3D machines to produce output slightly different than self-indulgent, miniature plastic replicas of ourselves.

The future of multi-dimensional printing is organic

Stem cells are one example of raw biomaterial that can be molded into organs like blood vessels, ears, heart valves and other bio-components. In a Brazilian - Latvian study titled Biofabrication: a 21st century manufacturing paradigm, the researchers defined biofabrication as the “production of complex living and non-living biological products from raw materials such as living cells, molecules, extracellular matrices and biomaterials.’’

Life-saving potential

Today, hundreds of thousands of people are in need of life-saving organ transplants worldwide, their lives inadvertently impacted by disease or age-related organ disfunction or failure caused by an accident. It is estimated that nearly 1 million deaths or one third of all deaths in the U.S. alone can be prevented by organ transplants. Naturally, there has always been a shortage of human donors and organs. Tens are perishing daily due to this disbalance; the chances of those at the bottom of the waiting lists are growing slimmer each day.

If we can’t get enough organs from actual donors, just like with any shortage in supply we can try to produce them as needed. 3D printing is by far the most fitting technology to apply to this type of an organic manufacturing challenge. Producing living structures is certainly revolutionary and very promising when it comes to saving and prolonging human lives.

Organ manufacturing progress

Currently the organs, tissue and vessels produced using 3D printers can be used solely for testing purposes, for perfecting the process and the technology and in training medical students. The ultimate goal is to be able to print a working organ that can be transplanted into a human body without significant complications or side effects.

Barriers to organ production

Although bio-manufacturing is a promising high-tech solution to an important societal challenge, you can imagine that ‘’printing’’ living parts isn’t a trivial matter. It takes more than feeding bio-components into a 3D printer for a ready-to-implant organ to come out the other end. At this time structures like skin, cartilage, and parts of organs are relatively easier to produce than entire organs. The ambition of bio-manufacturing companies is to eventually make organs out of bio-components, too, providing a virtually endless supply in the lucrative market for human health.

Ethical implications

Beyond simple financial considerations, there are still a number of technical and moral implications that need to be thought of and addressed before we start to mass-produce organs. What happens when life becomes perpetual? How do we manage a planet that is becoming warmer and more populated? Who can afford and who deserves to live forever? These are but a few of the issues humanity needs to solve before falling into an eternal bliss.

Additional applications

Beyond organ production, biofabrication has applications in other key sectors and can help advance sustainable energy and biofuel production, as well as eliminate the need for animal-based products, including meat products, leather and fur. Scientists envision a bright future for human skin production within 5 years, for cartilage implants – within 10, and for entire organs – within our lifetime. We just have to make sure our organs make it until then.

Copywriter: Ina Danova

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