Bioprinting human organs and tissue: Get ready for the great 3D printer debate

Bioprinting human organs and tissue: Get ready for the great 3D printer debate

Summary: Over the next two years, the use of 3D printing in medicine will propel the technology into a heated debate about its political, moral and financial ramifications.


Because of rapid advances in 3D printing, the world is plunging towards ethical and political controversy fuelled by the use of the technology to generate living human tissue and organs.

Bioprinting will progress far faster than general understanding of the ramifications of the technology, according to analyst firm Gartner.

Last year researchers at Cornell University demonstrated an ear printer, and San Diego firm Organovo unveiled work on printing human livers, with scientists at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland developing a way to print blobs of human embryonic stem cells.

Gartner research director Pete Basiliere said bioprinting initiatives are well-intentioned but raise questions about quality and control and the possible development of complex enhanced organs involving nonhuman cells.

"The day when 3D-bioprinted human organs are readily available is drawing closer, and will result in a complex debate involving a great many political, moral and financial interests," Basiliere said in a statement.

Even 3D printing of non-living medical devices, such as prosthetic limbs, could cause an explosion in demand for the technology over the next two years.

Outside the application of 3D printing in medicine, Gartner is forecasting that at least seven of the world's top 10 multichannel retailers will be using the technology by 2018.

Not only will they be employing 3D printing to generate custom stock orders but they'll be developing new business models for it.

As well as consumers buying printers to output their own products, 3D copying and printing services will also emerge for high-end parts, not only in plastics but in ceramics, stainless steel, and cobalt and titanium alloys.

However, businesses will pay a heavy price in intellectual property theft sparked by the spread of 3D printing. Gartner thinks worldwide it will cost at least $100bn annually by 2018.

"The very factors that foster innovation — crowdsourcing, R&D pooling and funding of startups — coupled with shorter product life cycles, provide a fertile ground for intellectual property theft using 3D printers," Basiliere said.

"Already, it's possible to 3D print many items, including toys, machine and automotive parts, and even weapons."

In the report 3D printing at the inflection point, Gartner argues that 3D printing could create an environment where businesses and their IP licensees will struggle to make money out of their inventions.

More on 3D printing

Topics: Emerging Tech, CXO, Tech Industry

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  • Think of the buggy whip manufacturers!!!

    They will go out of business!!!

    So what.

    EVERY new manufacturing process has done that. From the Gutenberg printing press, Jacquard loom, standardized parts assembly line, metal stamping machines, offset printing, laser printers....

    3D printing is just a continuation. Things that used to be valuable are no longer.
  • Jesse Pollard is right

    Defining ideas as property that can be owned and stolen no longer makes sense. It will take a while to develop a new legal and economic framework that recognizes and rewards reinvention, remixing, and reuse will take time but it will happen. Our entire legal and economic framework is built on the idea of goods and property as tangible and scarce. That is no longer the reality.
  • 3D bio-printing could have so many applications.

    Not just in building organs. Imagine 3d-printing using organisms that could build interlocking scaffolding after printing, effectively building strong lightweight biocomposite structures.

    The possibilities are endless for this tech.
    D. W. Bierbaum
  • Tentacles anyone?

    If we can print living tissue, what's to say it needs to be limited to tissues that occur in nature?
  • Intellectual Property

    IP will play a big role in the debate over 3D printing. Anytime you fabricate technology, there is a risk of counterfeiting, as the same products/items (medical devices, organs, etc.) are recreated by others. With this innovative technology comes the need for regulation. We discuss this further in a recent article, which can be found here:
    Life Sciences Now
    • IP is the problem.

      "With this innovative technology comes the need for regulation."

      Why would we want to stifle innovation with regulation? What good will come of that regulation? What horrible consequences to society will there be when products can be easily made locally and cheaply? Intellectual property IS the problem.

      3D printing is no different than any other fabrication technology, and is already subject to the nasty IP laws we have now. Just like the technologies before it, 3D printing's benefits will only be stifled by regulation.

      Who's interests will your IP laws serve? I doubt it is that of the general public.
      • Who's (sic) interests will your IP laws serve?

        Innovators? Certainly not the knock-off artists...
  • Hooray for Technology!

    Articles like this are very encouraging. The possibilities of 3D printing in the health industries are immense.

    If you have the public's good at heart, the answers to all these debate questions is simple - DO IT!

    If you can save lives, you should do it. If you can cure diseases and print organs, you should do it. If you can take existing expensive treatments and make them cheaper, you should do it. If you can make enhanced parts that improve people's lives and abilities, of course you should do it.

    The big debate is whether or not we will let big industry patent its way into keeping this technology out of the hands of the doctors and patience who need it most.
    • Technology.... 3D printing

      If you can be GOD you should do it???? There has to be a line in the sand...