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CONVERGE | Technology

How 3D Printing is Enhancing Our Bodies

December 11, 2018

Discover how our bodies may be getting a makeover thanks to 3D printing in the medical world.

3D printers have created homes and cars, but now they’re replicating our bodies. Medical 3D printing, also known as bioprinting, is changing the world (and our bodies) as we know it. While it may not be able to clone us (yet), bioprinters can create identical tissue and organs in just a few hours. Here’s everything to know about how medical 3D printing is enhancing our bodies.

What Is Bioprinting

3D printing can create large and complex objects alike. But, bioprinting takes this one step further by replicating human organs and skin tissue. So, how does it work? Just like a printer has ink, a bioprinter has "bio-ink" (or in this case, tissue). Scientists begin by extracting a small sample of tissue from the original organ. Since skin and blood cells are constantly multiplying, just a small sample can be used to create an entire organ. Scientists also use scans of the organ to create a design for the machine. The extracted tissue and design are then fed into the printer where it is manipulated and replicated in just a few hours.

So, how do the cells know what to do? Cells can determine where they’re needed on their own. This is similar to the way our cells congregate to heal a scar or bruise. That said, scientists may need to take control and move cells around so that they better model the shape of the original organ. The bioprinter can also produce a collagen-based “glue” that binds the cells together. That said, most cells stick together naturally. Through a combination of natural movement and scientific manipulation, new organs are born.

How Bioprinting is Changing the Medical World

When it comes to bioprinting, scientists have only scratched the surface of possibility. Recently, Wake Forest University researchers used bioprinting to supply a new bladder for a patient undergoing a transplant. Without bioprinting, a patient waits an average of five years for an eligible donor. With bioprinting, the patient waited only a few hours before receiving a perfect match.

So, how is bioprinting shaping the future of medicine? For starters, bioprinting provides opportunities for more medical procedures with less waiting time and lower costs. It also gives doctors a chance to practice procedures and better understand a patient’s body prior to surgery. This could mean fewer surprises, fewer errors, and quicker surgeries.

Bioprinting is also changing the way scientists test new prescription drugs. Rather than testing on animals, scientists can observe a drug’s effects on replicated human tissue or organs. In other words, bioprinting gives researchers a way to more accurately understand how a drug will act in the human body, without sacrificing animals for testing.

Industry Leaders Paving the Way

Although it has only recently gained attention, bioprinting is nothing new. In fact, bioprinting companies have been pushing medical boundaries since the early 2000’s. Considered the industry leader, Organovo has spent years developing a replica of human tissue for medical and drug research. They’ve even partnered with companies like L’Oréal to better develop synthetic skin. There are also companies like CELLLINK, who are creating the machinery (think bioprinters and “bio-ink”) that keeps these companies in business. Thanks to these industry leaders, it’s only a matter of time before bio-printed organs are used in the daily medical procedures.

Seeing as 3D printing has already infiltrated one of the most complex industries known to man, there’s no saying what’s next. Your favorite household items--think your TV, kitchen appliances, and computers--may soon be created by a 3D printer, too.

How long will it take for these changes to begin? Only time will tell. In the meantime, look out for the latest bioprinting news as scientists continue to create groundbreaking advancements.

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