3D printing, which has been around since the 1970s, uses a digital image to produce objects by depositing materials such as plastics or metals in layers to build up the object. 3D printing can be used to produce anything from shoes, cars, musical instruments, house-hold appliances and even a burger. Recently however, there has been a development in the medical uses of 3D printing. Printing prosthetic limbs, dental appliances and hearing aids is already common place in 3D printing, but now there is further advancement which sees us printing tissues, bones and functional organs.
Bioprinting is a process which uses the same technique as 3D printing but layers living cells to produce tissues. The head of the printer moves from side to side to deposit cells and produce tissues or organs. This process takes several hours. Labs have even started printing embryonic stem cells which may be used to produce many different types of tissues to be used in transplants.
‘Organovo’ was the first company to produce the commercial bioprinter and they are now producing tissues for use in medical research. The 3D cells produced by the printers can be used by drug companies for testing. Previously, drugs were tested on 2D cell cultures which are not as accurate as 3D cells in showing how the drugs affect tissues. 3D cells give more precise results which allow pharmaceutical companies to see how successful their drugs really are.
New printers in development at Oxford University use water and lipid droplets which accumulate to form tissues which could function like muscles or neurons. The oily droplets are coated in a lipid bilayer, a membrane which surrounds and protects all cells, and then deposited as droplets approximately the width of half a hair. These droplets could be built up to form tissues in the nervous system called neurons that function by transmitting electrical signals that pass information around the body.
Skin cells are now being produced that can help restore skin that has been damaged by burns or diseases. It is hoped that the printed skin cells can be directed onto the wound to promote instant healing. Bones have also been produced that are just as stable as real bones, but lighter.
Last month an artificial ear was created by a 3D printer using cartilage cells, whilst a university in Columbia has printed blood vessels using cells from a chicken. It can also be used to treat heart problems. A heart patch made up of human cells was implanted into rats which had suffered from hearts attacks, leading to their hearts to regain their original function.
Despite the advancements in bioprinting, it is believed that printing functional organs that could be used in transplants may take up to 10 years.
Although further time and research is clearly required, 3D printing is set to have a promising future. With the development of functioning printed tissues and organs, patients will no longer have to wait for transplants, as new organs will just be a click of a button away. Printing organs may have once sounded like something from out of a science fiction novel, but it could soon become a very real fact of life.