Like an inkjet printer, biological materials can be printed at home

It works like a regular printer, but this three dimensional printer can print biological materials such as human tissue.

I spent the weekend in Washington D.C. at the AAAS 2011 Annual Meeting. One of the most talked about events was the conversation about bioprinting. It included a three dimensional printer that can potentially make biological materials from scratch.

Vladimir Mironov envisions a day when doctors might be able to print out new skin for a burn victim or print out a new organ for patients awaiting a kidney transplant. Mironov of the Medical University of South Carolina said he made the printer run on an open-source platform called Fab@Home. It could potentially print biological materials for surgical implants or print out robotic parts for cosmetic testing so animals don't need to be used.

The printed material can't really be implanted in humans yet, Mironov said, adding that more animal tests are needed. But imagine if you could take cells from a donor, culture them and put them into an ink and basically grow a new organ. This would avoid rejection issues associated with transplants and eliminate the need for a synthetic implant.

At the press conference, the device printed a silicon model of a human ear cartilage. It took about 20 minutes to print out an object shaped like an ear.

The object can be printed layer-by-layer. Once it is incubated, it can be implanted.

3-D printing has many applications, so it's understandable that scientists want to take advantage of it. Cornell researchers are trying to print out heart valves. And Wake Forest researchers are working on printing skin. So far, the Wake Forest scientists have reported some success in mice experiments.

While it may be early for printing out human skin, it's not to early for printing out a flute . But it's not a light issue. Desktop printing has the potential to bring battery, clothing and car production into the comfort in your own home. Making critical parts on the spot could bring some of those oversea manufacturing operations back home, and turn the large-scale jobs into a smaller, domestic ones.

But for now, it seems like bioprinting is still a futurist development...a dreamy one that could make quite an impact if the technical challenges are overcome. From prosthetic limbs to skin to walls of houses to furniture, each part can be made for you (and only you) instead going through large-scale production. Instead of just printing an image of the object, the actual object can be printed out. You can touch it, hold it and feel it. I felt the objects back in the exhibition hall. The turtle print out was cute, but it's clear that medical models and architecture designs are leading the emerging field of 3-D printing.

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