Researchers Are Now Creating Body Parts Using 3D Printing

An ear scaffold, which would be used to grow cells to form an ear. Credit: NATGEO/REBECCA HALE, NGM STAFF

Science fiction pushes the boundaries of the methods, theories, and tools that we have today. They allow us an insight into a future that could be, albeit in a more exaggerated and fantastical way. One of the more intriguing concepts of science fiction is being able to recover your body parts with ease and without worry.

With many people on organ waitlists for hearts, kidneys, and other vital organs, it is becoming increasingly important for us to develop better tools to address this limitation. One of the tools being used to help heal and address some of these concerns is 3D printing.

3D printing started out as a fad that swept the nation. The thought of being able to print almost anything from a batch of polymers was fascinating and became a useful tool for many. From toys to food, 3D printing allowed many ideas to begin growing around it. One of those ideas was creating body parts using a 3D printer.

Recently, scientists have begun looking at 3D printing as a means of creating organs and other body parts as a future technology to address the demands for organs.

The 3D printers would be bioprinters and would be used to create tissues and organs made of human cells (the “ink” of the printer). The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine focuses on conceptualizing and bringing forward this technology for medical use. One of their work includes creating an ear using 3D printing.

The process starts by creating a hydrogel ear-like scaffold that was pliable and porous. The scaffold is then covered in skin cells since it is for the ear, and cartilage cells. These cells can begin to propagate on and around the scaffold to eventually form an ear-like structure. The scaffold is biodegradable and eventually degrades leaving only the ear-like biological structure behind.

This would all be done using the patient’s own cells because it would ensure that the organ is not rejected by the body if it is to be implanted.

For more complex organs like kidneys or hearts, researchers have to start from the ground up and understand how to create these organs in a lab. This is an important step because we need to program the bio-printer to do this and it cannot be done unless we understand the intricacies of the building process. Otherwise, we risk creating a mass of cells that becomes a detriment rather than help a patient.

As we increase the difficulty from ears to things like brains or entire legs, it becomes increasingly difficult and complex. This means that the bioprinting process will take a relatively long time to reach us and achieve the power of those of science fiction.

A small liver scaffold This is one of many scaffolds they are working on to increase the complexity and understanding of tissue building. Credit: Wake Forest Institute

Fortunately, researchers like those from the Wake Forest institute have begun the process towards understanding the process of organ and tissue building. As the field continues to grow, many researchers have begun their own bioprinting experiments to build more proof of concepts for what we can eventually do in the future.

Researchers at Organovo, one of many new biotech companies focusing on creating tissues and organs, have been working on creating printed liver tissues so that they can be used for drug testing new treatments. Similarly, many other companies are creating organs so that they can use them for drug discovery.

One of the potentials of this bioprinting is creating tissues and organs from patients so that drugs can be tested on them rather than testing on the patient. This eliminates any risks that the patient may face and allows for accurate drug interaction that the patient would be exposed to.

Bioprinting could change the way we develop and test new drugs because we could grow tissues and organs from patients and test the drugs on those rather than testing them on actual patients.

3D Printed Implants And Prosthesis

Bioprinting is not the only use for 3D printing technologies in the medical field. Because 3D printers can be equipped with strong and durable starting materials, they can be used to create medical implants and prosthesis to be used by patients.

Using technologies like x-rays or MRIs, doctors and researchers can digital mock-ups of particular of areas of the body and translate it into a 3D printing file to be printed at some point. This has allowed 3D printing to solidify itself int the healthcare sector for creating implants and prosthetics.

Researchers have already used the technology to create dental implants and hip implants. Because every one of us is unique to a certain degree, our skulls are not exactly the same. Our teeth and bones are also different. This means that using standard implants is a difficult process because it must be modified to fit a particular patient.

The wonder of 3D printing implants is that the implants can be made precisely for a particular patient. For instance, is a patient needs a cranial implant then 3D printing one would be fast and accurate versus using a standard implant and continually testing it to ensure it fits the patient.

Doctors at the University of Michigan recently reported using 3D printers and CT scans of the trachea to create a precise model of a tracheal splint for a baby suffering tracheobronchomalacia. The splint was bioreabsorbable so as the baby grows, the splint will eventually be absorbed and the child will recover.

Almost all hearing aids made today are custom made using 3D printing. Credit: Forbes

In the areas of prosthetics, patients can have prosthetic limbs be printed for them that precisely matches their body type, development level, and age. This level of precision creates a better quality of life for them because it fits them better than any standard prosthetic would. It is also faster and relatively cheaper to make because it is all programmed inside of the 3D printer.

As previously mentioned, this technology is in its infancy and is being used to create proof of concepts or relatively easy implants. It is fun to imagine what the future will hold for the technology, but we must remember that it needs much more time and resources to truly get to that point. From regulation, safety, and efficacy, there are many areas that need understanding and continued development.

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