A reported 10,000 people die in the US every year, that's 27 people each day, due to lack of organs available for transplant. The solution to this problem is not to make 27 more people donate their organs every day, but to use bioengineering to manufacture organs. This seems like a daunting task, but it could be made possible with 3D printing.
Conventional 3D printers are commonly used in the manufacturing and design industry, but are used to print objects for the purpose of testing, not for the purpose of printing objects to be used or sold. These printers add layers of modeling material on top of each other, creating shapes that would be difficult to make out of a single, or small number of pieces using traditional manufacturing methods. They can also print directly from CAD models, making it easy to model designs.
Despite its success in this field, this application of 3D printers is not the only one. Engineers at AMTecH group are working on 3D printing human organs. AMTecH plans to print fully working human organs within the next ten years, a goal that co-director Tim Marler says is “not far-fetched.” One organ that is being developed is pancreatic organ that can be placed anywhere in the body to monitor the glucose level of blood. This is essentially the addition of a new organ to the human body, and would be an important advancement in both medical engineering and 3D printing. Dr. Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine also is working on printing organs. The surgeon's team developed the first organ that was implemented into a human body more than ten years ago. Now, his work has mainly focused on the development of a human kidney, the most commonly transplanted organ that is also in the most demand. The production of an artificial kidney would give many people another chance to live.
To be able to print human organs, the engineers have pushed aside the conventional single armed printers and built their own multiple-armed printer. One of the reasons that the multi-armed printer is so much better than any other is that multiple arms allow it to print multiple materials at once, with each arm printing a different part of the organ, such as blood vessels, while another arm is printing different types of cells between the blood vessels. This makes it so that one arm doesn't have to keep switching the type of material that it is printing, saving time, a precious resource when working on an organ.
Another body part that is being 3D printed is the human ear. Humans can lose their ears in a variety of ways, some people are born without them, some people lose their ears to disease, and some people lose them to accidents. Luckily, with 3D printing, a new ear can be grown in two days, and , can be successfully integrated into the body. To do this, a patient with one ear can have it scanned, or a patient missing both ears can have an appropriate ear designed or scanned for them. Then a mold will be printed of the person's ear, saving time over carving a mold. Afterwards, the mold is injected with a gel made of living cow ear cells and collagen, and after 15 minutes the gel will set, be implanted, and begin to grow. The ear is not the only body part that could be printed using this method, and after the ear is expected to be integrated into the first human in three years, more 3D printed molds for other body parts will likely be developed.
Biological 3D printing is still in its infancy, but the new applications could have an important impact on medicine. Being one of the most versatile forms of manufacturing today, it is an effective platform for the development of bioengineering products, especially ones tailored to fit specific people.