3 February 2015
This article first appeared in Cambridge News.
You can hardly move these days for people using 3D printers to make stuff.
From guns to laptops to houses, pretty much anything you imagine has been manufactured using one of the clever machines that squirts magic stuff (well, it seems pretty magic) out of tiny holes until a functioning product appears.
And ever since there have been 3D printers, there have been people trying to print body-parts; last week, scientists from the Feinstein Institute in New York announced they had succeeded in printing cartilage which can be used to repair damaged windpipes, while Dutch experts recently printed replacement ankle ligaments.
So how far can this technology go? Well, according to Simon Burnell, a technology expert from Melbourn's PA Consulting, quite a long way.
"3D printing has been around for 15 years or so and it's had a huge impact on the design development process," he said.
"It's only more recently that people have started to look at how it can be used in health care in terms of personalising replacement parts."
According to Simon, one of the first areas of the body that could benefit is the mouth.
"People are looking at dentistry because printers can be used to make hard ceramics," he said.
"Dentists are already making scans, so you could possibly use those as the basis for printing a tooth, rather than going through the process of making a mould and cast for dentures, which isn't very comfortable for patients."
To print the windpipe, scientists built a scaffold made out of the same PLA filament used in standard 3D printing projects.
After that, they applied a mixture of chondrocytes, or healthy cartilage cells, and collagen, before 'baking' it in a custom bioreactor to make sure the cells grew properly.
While this process is, relatively speaking, pretty simple, manufacturing a 'soft' body part such as an organ is far more problematic.
Simon explained: "When printing organs you need to ensure the flow of blood is correct, so the real challenge is how do you print small holes that allow the blood to move around the correctly?
"I think if 3D printing of organs is going to work there will need to be collaboration with other technologies. If you print cells they don't just stay alive, so if you print an organ how do you keep it alive and grow it?"
As with many emerging technologies, Simon believes cost will be a key factor in whether it is widely adopted.
"We don't know how much it will cost to print an organ, or what this cost will be in relation to staying on a transplant list," he said. "Why would you print organs when you've got a healthy donation programme? On the other hand, there's a viability aspect, and if you custom-print an organ there may be less chance it is rejected by the body.
"In the short-term, I think we're more likely to see growth in the printing of 'harder' body parts."