3D technology isn’t just for movie theaters and sci-fi anymore. Bioprinters could print 3-dimensional body parts and revolutionize medical care.
How Do Bioprinters Work?
The first bioprinters were just desktop printers. Thomas Boland, in 2000, used his printer with collagen instead of ink. Later, his team worked with E. coli and then small animal cells. Other engineers worked to create ceramic bone grafts, polymer prosthetic limbs, acrylic hearing aids, and porcelain dental crowns with actual 3D printers. Other scientists, including Boland, modified regular printers. They could “disable the paper-feed”, and add “an elevator-like platform” that could move up and down the z-axis to make printed sculptures, one layer at a time, such as a meniscus (C-shaped knee and joint cartilage). Wake Forest researchers built custom, faster bioprinters that could print many different cell types, such as vascular, muscle, and stem cells. They could also make tissue and scaffolding, to create bones, noses,and ears. Because complex organs need complex framework, the idea is that the 3D printers can make cellular material that can “assemble itself”, similar to embryonic development. Cells shouldn’t be placed in their final position—they should be allowed to migrate, as they do during gestation, according to Gabor Forgacs, co-founder of Organovo. The “challenge”, in making organs, is to also given them vascular support, down to the capillaries, so that they remain viable.1
Body Parts Bioprinters Can Make
Manufacturing is being transformed by what 3D printers can make. Prosthetic devices can also be printed, for people and animals. 3D biotechnology has made leaps from printing synthetic edible meat and leather to printing human liver tissue. Making a functioning liver organ is the next step. A human ear was created at Cornell University.2 A 3D printer was able to make a human jaw for a woman, to replace the one she lost from osteomyelitis. This was done by using a scaffold, made of titanium, that was 3D printed and “steeped in stem cells”, using the patient’s abdomen to “grow biocompatible tissue”. MRI scans were used during the jaw replacement surgery. The 3D printer “fused titanium particles layer by layer” to copy the jaw shape. A ceramic layer then covered the jaw. Dimples in the structure allowed muscle to attach, and openings in the jaw let nerves pass through. The doctors even left in “support structures for dental implants”. 3D bioprinters can also use stem cells as “bio-ink” in various sizes and shapes.3 Robohand was created by a carpenter who lost some fingers in an accident. Unable to afford an expensive replacement prosthetic, Richard Van As built his own, with designer Ivan Owen, made of“cables, screws, 3D printing, and thermoplastic”. The hand can actually grasp, and it only costs about $500 and a 3D printer. Robohand is an Open Source design, meant to help as many people as possible throughout the world, and plans to make it are available online.4 With bioprinting in development, future organ transplants may no longer run the risk of rejection, body parts may become more available, animal testing can be reduced, and more patients may be helped. Organovo is a pioneering company that not only works with organ cells, but it can print cardiac tissue, blood vessels, and it is doing research on making functioning organs, such as the kidneys and liver. The print heads on their prototype printer had endothelial cells, cardiac cells, and collagen scaffolding, “bio-paper”. Now, once the basic design is put in place, “Nature completes the job” by taking bioink spheroids (aggregates of cells) and fuses them together. In other words, “appropriate cell types…know what to do”.5