Additive manufacturing (also called 3D printing) was first developed in the 1980s. The technology has been continuously refined and developed over the past three decades, and now provides a viable, versatile alternative to traditional machining. It has been widely used for manufacturing everything from model cars to prosthetic limbs to robots and can be used with a wide range of plastics, resins, and even metals. But bioprinting represents the most exciting and innovative application for additive manufacturing yet.
As the name suggests, bioprinting can be used to artificially manufacture living tissue, complex biological structures, and even human organs. The use of bioprinting is remarkable and has the ability to improve the way a medical job is done, which is a positive step forward when donations are limited. The health sector is forever expanding and taking innovation to the next level.
The Process of Bioprinting
The process works like this: scientists use stem cells or cultured DNA to create a gelatinous cell-dense substance known as bio-ink. The bio-ink is then loaded into a 3D printer and used to construct delicate trellis structures, which mirror natural tissue. These structures are built up gradually, layer by layer. After the printing process, the cells grow and multiply within the trellis, completing the artificial organic structure and readying it for an implant.
The first major medical success with bioprinted material came in 2009 when researchers and surgeons collaborated to manufacture and implant nerve guides into a patient. A year later, blood vessels were successfully implanted in a procedure that represented the field’s second landmark breakthrough. Most recently, cardiac and lung tissue patches have also been used for innovative surgical procedures.
Researchers believe the next step will be nasal and throat patches capable of producing mucus membranes and bonding seamlessly with surrounding tissue–something that is impossible with traditional grafting methods. Another remarkable application being developed is the artificial production of cancerous tumors for use in drug testing. When cancer researchers can bioprint malignant growths, it will drastically reduce the time and risks associate with testing unproven new treatments.
But organ printing still remains the highest goal of bioprinting developers. Every year, about 100,000 patients worldwide need organ replacements. Yet only about 5000 are able to obtain them from donors. In less than a decade, it is expected that bioprinting will be able to mass-produce organs ranging from hearts to livers. If this happens, it will have a profound impact on worldwide medicine and will eliminate the need for organ donors and transplant wait-lists. It will also put a decisive end to the horrific practice of black-market organ trafficking.
As an invaluable weapon in the battle against cancer, a solution to worldwide organ scarcity, and a technology with the potential to transform healthcare as we know it, there can be no doubt bioprinting will improve the lives of people all across the globe in years to come. The technology still has a long way to go, but if it lives up to expectations, bioprinting will mean a better future for all of us.