What if your desktop printer used living cells instead of ink droplets? What would you print then?
The first logical answer would be body parts, to replace the irreparably damaged ones that you or your loved ones may have.
The three-dimensional printer is making strides toward that goal. A new Washington Post feature describes the work that scientists are doing in the area of 3-D bioprinting, a small subset of the greater field of tissue engineering.
Though the technology has been around for two decades, it's never been used like this.
Bonnie Berkowitz reports:
In laboratories all over the world, experts in chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering are working on many paths toward an audacious goal: to print a functioning human liver, kidney or heart using a patient’s own cells.
That’s right — new organs, to go. If they succeed, donor waiting lists could become a thing of the past.
Tony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, envisions what he calls “the Dell computer model,” where a surgeon could order up “this hard drive, with this much memory …,” only he or she would be talking about specs for living tissue rather than electronics.
We're still a long way off -- decades -- before we can begin running off a new kidney or liver for a patient. But in a feat that sounds like it was taken straight from a science fiction script, scientists have already printed skin, vertebral disks and other kinds of soft, cartilage-like tissue. Even more incredibly, they've successfully implanted them into living organisms.
Organs with complex vascular systems are another challenge entirely. But the earliest human trials for printed replacement parts are expected in two to five years -- showing that the potential for the technology is, well, breathtaking.