The technology of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is most well-known for creating plastic prototypes and objects that are not only cheap, but also fast and accurate. Recently, however, 3D printing has found its place in medicine and biotechnology.
In his TED Talk back in 2011, Dr. Anthony Atala, Director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, depicted an unfortunate tradeoff created by advances in medicine. Though it has allowed us to live longer, it has nearly doubled the demand for organ transplants with little to no corresponding increase in the number of organs available to be transplanted. This is where 3D printing comes in. By loading printers with cells instead of ABS, researchers can apply the same layer-by-layer concept to human organs – in Atala’s case, specifically bones and kidneys. During the TED Talk, Atala presented a newly-printed kidney for the audience to see. Although the technology is still in its early stages and it will take several years of further study and advances in tissue engineering, such initiatives could one day revolutionize where replacement organs come from.
Although 3D printing organs is an innovation of the future, 3D printing has still proven to be a valuable technology for medicine. Physicians at the Weill Cornell Medical College and biomedical engineers at Cornell University have utilized 3D printing to successfully create a living human ear that not only looks, but also functions like a normal ear. Replacement ears for children born with absence or severe deformity of the ear currently look unnatural and may require painful surgeries to harvest the necessary biological material from the patient. Cornell researchers have developed a faster, less evasive approach. A scan is first taken of a model ear, and a computer is used to create a 3D printed mold. Collagen is injected to serve as a scaffold, and then cartilage cells are added and allowed to grow. The entire process takes only a couple of days to create a functional ear. With future testing, it may be possible to experiment with human implantation in as little as three years.