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

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.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

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.

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