3D Printing Breakthrough Could Change Healthcare

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have used a new technique to print soft tissue an off-the-shelf 3D printer, and hope to use the method to make hearts.
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A new 3D printing technique developed at Carnegie Mellon will allow the printing of soft living tissue like that of our own organs. The most amazing part is that Carnegie Mellon has done this with off-the-shelf 3D printers that cost about $1,000.

Up until now, 3D printing was mostly done using rigid materials like plastics, resins, and metal. Until this process, 3D printing of soft tissue required special artificial frameworks or lattices to hold together the organs. Otherwise, if you try to print softer materials in air, they cannot support their own weight as you add layers of material. If an organ can’t hold its shape while you add to it, it is useless. However, the frames had a potential for increasing rejection rates. They made the whole process more complicated and expensive.

The technique developed by Carnegie Mellon researchers uses a gel to support the organ as it is being built. The printer injects the new materials inside the gel, and once the organ is complete and can support itself, the outer gel can be melted away in warm water, leaving behind the perfectly formed organ. Here's what it looks like:

Previous bioprinters have cost more than $100,000 and have required specialists to run the machines. Reducing the costs of the machines reduces the cost of the organs themselves, which are mostly made from collagen, alginates, and fibrins. These are relatively common materials. Doctors already inject collagen into body parts for cosmetic reasons.

Of course, to make a functioning heart or other organ takes more than collagen. Some researchers are working now on injecting living heart cells into the mix in order to make a viable heart. Other researchers have succeeded at making living 3D printed organs, so there is hope that the processes can be married into a relatively cheap method of producing what amounts to human replacement parts.

This sounds cool, but such a process is also desperately needed. According to the Carnegie Mellon researchers, some 4,000 Americans are currently awaiting heart transplants. Further, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 22 people die every day in America waiting for a vital organ transplant. Further, 28,000 people every year receive a major organ transplant, and another 1 million receive cornea, bone, skin, and other types of tissue donations. Demand always outstrips supply.

Interestingly enough, the ability to create affordable spare organs opens a market for greater demand. Today, only the sickest of patients are eligible for transplant lists, while others who are ill must make do with daily drugs, therapy, and stop-gap measures. If replacing organs became as easy as replacing the muffler on your car, we could potentially improve the quality of life and save money treating countless diseases.

[Of course, 3D printing goes beyond the micro to the macro. Read: 3D Printing Robot Will Build An Entire Bridge.]

We're not there yet, but this process is a major step toward solving the shortage of replacement organs. It may even have other uses, such as the 3D-printing of food and soft consumer goods, meaning it might be possible to 3D-print more goods in our own houses. The technique has a lot of potential to change the way we think of healthcare, and even the way we shop, eat, and live.

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