The Future Is Now: Printable Body Parts

Image via PLOS ONE/Reiffel et. al.

Image via PLOS ONE/Reiffel et. al.

It’s not difficult for the Star Trek fans among us to envision machines that can create objects out of thin air. And it seems more and more that what was once considered solely science fiction is now becoming reality.

First, I read about a Star Trek-like medical tricorder that even Spock would approve of. Now, doctors and engineers are working together to build human body parts with the use of a 3D printer.

3D printing has been in development for years. Engineers, architects, artists and designers have been experimenting with this new technology that uses special types of plastic, aluminum or nylon to build specialized parts for machines, models for buildings or everyday objects. It may seem like a complicated concept; however, it’s quite simple if you imagine that every 3D object is a series of 2D images. For example, a potato, if you think about it, is just thousands of potato slivers.

As 3D printing grows in popularity, more affordable printers are being developed. For $1000, you can now purchase a home-sized 3D printer and use it to make everyday 3D objects. If something breaks, like an oven dial or one of your children’s toys, you can design the object on  the computer and the printer would use melted plastic to build the object layer by layer.

Scientists are using this concept to build human body parts, including solid organs like kidneys or livers. It would grow the patient’s cells and use them to build a whole organ. This could solve our problems with the growing organ donation waiting list. The number of people who need organs is growing, and the number of available organs can’t accommodate the growing need. Hundreds of people die while waiting for the organs that would have saved their lives.

In addition to easing the long list of organ donors, it would also lower the risk of organ rejection by the organ recipient’s body. If a person receives a kidney or liver from another person, the body’s immune system sees it as a foreign object and starts to attack it, like it would an invading bacteria.

While we wait for a 3D printer that can make kidneys, scientists are currently using these advancements to make living cartilage cells and plastic models to create new ears for children with microtia, a congenital condition that leaves children with underdeveloped outer ears. Scientists were able to design three-dimensional models of children’s ears and use a 3D printer to create a plastic mold of the ear and fill it with a matrix of collagen. Then, the researchers introduced cartilage cells harvested from cows, which would theoretically one day be the child’s own cells. The cells then grow and replace the collagen, forming an ear-shaped collagen structure that can be implanted under the skin to create a more aesthetically pleasing ear. So far, this team has only successfully tested on lab rats.

Plenty of testing is needed to make sure these kinds of implants are safe for humans. That said, the team behind the 3D ear says we might see the first ear implant of this kind as soon as 2016.

What will they think of next?