7 Things You Need to Know About…3D Printed Body Parts

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As we experience a growing population and a shortage of donor organs, 3D printed body parts could provide a solution to a number of global challenges.

1   3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has already produced numerous successful surgical implants, typically made of titanium, ceramic and medical polymers. 3D printers can create parts that are tailor-made for each body, and printed jaws, skulls, hip joints and heels have all already been successfully implanted in patients.

2   3D printing has been touted as a solution for the global shortage of donor organs. Increasing life expectancy and a rapidly growing population are set to exacerbate what is already a serious shortage – estimates suggest that over 20 people die every day in the US due to a lack of donors. 3D bioprinting has exciting potential to provide a solution to what has been described as a real global health crisis.

3   ‘Bioprinting’ is the technology being developed to create tissues and complex organs. The ability to produce working vital organs, such as hearts and livers, could still be years away due to the sensitivities of living cells, among other difficulties. However, companies such as Organovo are already creating “multi-cellular, dynamic and functional human tissues”. Experts are predicting technology will be available that uses human cells for ‘ink’, and recent breakthroughs have seen the creation of the first self-sustaining cells.

4   There has been increasing application of 3D printing in the dental profession for some time, with technology available to scan a patients’ jaws and teeth, before printing new ones for a perfect fit. Durable plastics such as Peek are being produced by printers for people’s mouths, as well as accurately shaped and textured models to help dentists in their work.

5   The increasing versatility of 3D printing in healthcare is exemplified by the creation of a prototype ear by researchers in America, with a hydrogel for the ear ‘scaffold’, and cells that will grow to make cartilage. Printed tissue patches are being developed to repair damaged livers, as well as skin for cosmetics testing and burns victims.

6   3D printing in medical applications is growing rapidly. The sector was valued at US$354.5 million in 2012, and is expected to reach US$965.5 million by 2019, according to a report from Transparency Market Research. This market includes implants and body parts, as well as surgical guides and instruments.

7   3D bioprinting technology is developing so rapidly, it could spark major ethical debate in the near future. Research company Gartner said: “3D bioprinting facilities with the ability to print human organs and tissue will advance far faster than general understanding and acceptance of the ramifications of this technology…What happens when complex ‘enhanced’ organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them? Who will ensure the quality of the resulting organs?”

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Photo Credit: Carmen Jost from Flickr

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