3d printing is continuing to evolve and find its way into more areas, from the aesthetic world of art to the practical world of mechanical engineering. Perhaps no other use of 3d printing is more exciting or shows more promise than the subset of bioprinting. Bioprinting is a process of producing 3-dimensional, living tissue by printing multiple layers of live cells. Some of the things already being produced include skin, vascular tissue, blood vessels, and heart tissue. The capability to print entire organs will soon be a reality and approval for actual surgical use and transplantations is just around the corner.
The American Transplant Foundation estimates that more than 120,000 Americans are currently awaiting organ transplants for a life-threatening condition. This number is increasing at a rate of one new patient about every 12 minutes. With the current supply of donated organs, the sad reality is that most of the the people on the list will die before a donor organ becomes available. This makes bioprinting a critical and timely concern. Once the process of printing tissue and entire organs is perfected and approved, doctors will be able to help thousands of people who otherwise might not survive long enough to receive a donated organ.
Another area in which bioprinting is showing promise is bone and cartilage generation. Scientists have already used bioprinting to construct vertebrae, jawbones and even entire rib cages. Generating cartilage based body parts such as ears, noses and even tracheas is also possible. This technology opens up the possibility of eliminating artificial prostheses, as well as improved surgical repair of severely broken and shattered bones.
Technology is already being developed that will allow surgeons to use 3d printing in the operating room for real-time wound repair. Military doctors are eyeing the possibility of wound treatment right on the battlefield.
The process of bioprinting begins with the generation of the cells to be used. Cells are taken via a biopsy from healthy tissue and organs and are then multiplied. The cells are then mixed with a microgel containing oxygen and other nutrients to create the ‘bio-ink’ that will be used in the printer. After this, the process is very similar to other types of 3d printing, with necessary modifications that allow for using multiple types of materials as well as keeping the cells alive. The bio-ink is injected onto a scaffolding in layers to create the desired tissue structure.
Bioprinting research is already quite advanced, and the technology and its capabilities are improving rapidly. Several big names in the medical and tech sectors are working with 3d bioprinting, as well as other newer companies.
The National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute and other organizations have already donated money to the research, and companies have raised additional funding with campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. A number of 3d bioprinters are already available on the market, ranging in price from less than $5,000 to more than $250,000.
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