In 1999, the first 3D printed organs were implanted in patients. The following 17 years saw numerous advancements made in 3D printing technology and medical science. Now when the two fields cross paths, you get futuristic technology that seems right at home in a Michael Crichton novel. The introduction of bioprinting, for example, has revolutionized the way we look at organs. We can print various kinds of tissues with the help of bioprinting. Who’d have imagined something like that? Moreover, 3D inkjet printing has proven highly effective in the development of advanced medical tools and devices. The possibilities are endless and new applications of 3D printing are being discovered by the medical community regularly. Let’s take a look at some of the most exciting breakthroughs to date.
Though it’s still some time before an entire organ can be successfully printed for use in surgery, medical researchers and scientists have managed to print the building blocks of the human liver, kidney cells, and sheets of cardiac tissue that beat just like the real thing. So far, the printed tissue is being mostly used by pharmaceutical companies for drug testing. However, the ultimate goal is to create entire, fully functional human organs that can be transplanted into human patients. According to most experts, this will become a reality; it’s just a question of waiting for a decade or so.
- Stem Cells
Anyone with the slightest knowledge of science and medicine can tell you that stem cells possess tremendous powers of regeneration. They have the ability to reproduce various sorts of tissues in humans, which makes them a pretty logical candidate for bioprinting. Numerous research labs in global universities, like the Heriot-Watt University of Edinburgh, have undertaken the responsibility of bioprinting stem cells. This serves as a precursor to the printing of other forms of tissues, and may eventually result in the printing of cells directly into human body parts.
There are many people who have serious skin problems but suffer in silence since they are not able to get effective treatment. For instance, burn victims and patients diagnosed with skin cancer. No matter how hard they try to avoid it, these people will be left with scars in spite of successful surgery. 3D printing can prove to be a life changer for such individuals. 3D printing has been found to have an amazing effect on epidermal diseases and afflictions. Skin cell bioprinting has been in development by German medical engineers since 2010 while James Yoo, a researcher at the Wake Forest Institute, has been hard at work on skin graft printing that can be directly applied onto burn victims.
- Cartilage and Bone
In the last few years prototypes for cartilage tissue bioprinting have been developed by Cornell engineer, Hod Lipson. The process has been tough since Lipson has not yet been able to come up with a meniscus that can withstand the amount of pounding and pressure that an actual one can. However, on the positive side, he along with a team of engineers is well on the way to figuring out just how these properties may be applied to the bioprinted organs. Moreover, the same group of mechanical engineers from Germany who successfully printed stem cells are trying to obtain positive results for bioprinting bone and other parts of the human skeletal system.
- Surgical Tools
The scope of production and manufacture for surgical devices and tools has increased by leaps and bounds in recent times thanks to the power of 3D printing. Students from the Bioengineering Department at the University of British Columbia won the 2014 Joel Burt Award for their design and 3D printing of an innovative and precise tool to remove surgical smoke. Other surgical instruments successfully created through 3D printing are scalpels handles, forceps, clamps, and hemostats. The best thing about these tools is that since they are produced by a sterile printer, the manufacturing costs are almost a tenth of their stainless steel counterparts.
- Research for Cancer
Scientists have realized that the application of 3D printing goes beyond tissues and organs. It can be used to print cancer cells and disease cells. But why? How does bioprinting such cells help the medical community? The answer is research. The creation of cancer cells allows scientists to systematically study how tumors grow and mutate within the body. Such testing has far reaching consequences and immense medical knowledge and value to offer. Not only will it aid in improved drug testing, but the development of new therapeutic treatments and the analysis of cancer cells will become a whole lot easier. At the rate bioprinting is growing, it might even be possible that a cure for cancer is discovered in this lifetime.
- Heart and Blood Vessels
Medical researchers at the University of Sydney and the Harvard Medical Institute have come up with a heart patch that seeks to literally repair damaged hearts with 3D printed cells. After successfully testing the product on rats, they are attempting to develop artificial cardiac tissues that mimic the biological and mechanical properties of an actual human heart.
The medical community is very excited to explore the full potential of 3D printing. As the technology continues to improve, biomedical engineers have made it a priority to try and remove existing obstacles to the bioprinting of more complex organs and tissues. Various companies have already come up that seek to provide customized 3D printing solutions to educators and doctors. What was once thought to be fiction is poised to become reality in time – the sustenance of life through medical science!