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In 1984, Chuck Hull invented the technology to create a printer capable of creating three-dimensional objects. During the course of approximately 30 years, this technology evolved to the point where biomedical engineers are now able to “print” human cells. In 2003, Dr. Thomas Boland at Clemson University filed the first patent for this concept, known as bioprinting. The implications of this kind of technology in the medical field are boundless and have been studied by various research institutions and companies.
Bioprinting involves a process similar to 3D printing a plastic toy. Cells are distributed on top of a biocompatible scaffold. They are intricately placed in many layers to create the three-dimensional structures, forming pre-tissues. Once this pre-tissue is placed into an incubator, it will mature into human tissue. There are various specialized methods of bioprinting, which include: photolithography, magnetic bioprinting, stereolithography, and direct cell extrusion.
At Cornell University’s College of Engineering, Dr. Lawrence Bonassar has been studying bioprinting technology for the past several years. His laboratory has been focused on regenerative medicine dealing with cartilage implants. Bonassar uses living ink made of cells and printed body implants to generate objects such as human ears. His process begins by using laser technology to scan a human ear into a his computer system. Afterwards, Bonnassar’s living ink is used to produce the ear in layers. “Our long-term goals are to change the way that clinicians practice and to give them the next generation of implants that will be more successful, more like real tissue, and will last in the body for decades,” Bonassar said.
One company, Organovo, has been using bioprinting research to not only create human tissues, but also to create human organs. Organovo was formed in April 2007 and is located in San Francisco, California. Other than aiding medical patients, Organovo uses its technology to test drugs on generated human tissue before administering it on living people. Organovo uses the NovoGen MMX Bioprinter™ to perform its studies and generate tissues. In August 2009, the company was awarded an NIH grant, to create bioprinted blood vessels. Though bioprinting technology is making progress, researchers believe it will be available for public use in another decade.
While printing tissues with a three-dimensional printer is a relatively new concept, researchers have been regenerating cells in laboratories by hand for years. 3D printers have simplified the process and have sped it up. This technology is promising for the medical and research community, but there are some criticisms. Some people are weary of whether they would like artificial parts to be implemented into their bodies. Furthermore, religious groups believe 3D printing will impose ethical questions for people because they see this technology as “playing god.”
Although there are conflicting viewpoints, the technology of bioprinting is expected to advance thanks to the contributions of innovators such as Dr. Lawrence Bonassar and companies such as Organovo. Imagine the possibilities of this technology in the future of medical science. Patients who need a liver transplant will not have to wait months to receive a match; they will be able to provide their own DNA to medical faculty to print a matching liver. This is just one advance in the ever-changing world of medicine.