3D-printed body parts

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

printed blood vessels
Printing blood vessels.

Advances in 3D printing may soon answer the hopes and dreams of patients desperately in need of organ donations.

How do these printers even work? Well, imagine a normal inkjet printer. You know, the ones you use to print out English papers and stuff. Those printers have an ink cartridge attached to a belt. When a motor is turned on, the ink cartridge moves left and right along the belt, precisely releasing droplets of ink onto a piece of paper. 3D printers work in a similar way. The difference comes in how it moves and the type of ink it uses.

In addition to moving side-to-side, the 3D printer belt can move back-and-forth and up-and down. When cartridges are filled with a special type of ink – usually plastic – the printer is able to combine all the motions and stack the ink on top of itself. The options are limitless. When the cartridges are filled with living cells, however, they can make different parts of the body!

There are tons of examples. Scientists from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine created 7 bladders and implanted them into 7 patients at  Boston Children’s Hospital. The bladder is made up of only two types of cells and has one function. The researchers from Wake Forest Initiative says that’s why it was so easy to make. However, there are some limitations to the technology.

“An MRI doesn’t tell you where the cells are,” says Hod Lipson, an engineer from Cornell University, “We’re just completely in the dark in terms of the blueprints. That’s half the puzzle. There’s also… no tools to move cells around. That’s not a coincidence. It’s beyond what most computer software can handle. You can’t have a software model of a liver. It’s more complicated than a model for a jet plane.”

The company Organovo stacked heart cells into the shape of the heart and made the cells beat together, but it didn’t work exactly like a heart. Engineers from Cornell University made cartilage, which is found in between bones, but it wasn’t as strong as the type in our bodies. There are other parts of the body that are even harder to print, like the liver. This organ is made of several cells and has over 500 functions! Other organs in our bodies can be just as complicated and therefore much more difficult to print correctly

Though 3D printers can make many things, there is a long way to go. Still, medical professionals everywhere can’t help but think of the game-changing potential this technology can bring to the field.

Featured image courtesy of Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Image of printed blood vessels courtesy of University of Pennsylvania.