Print-On-Demand Human Organs

Late last month, Stephen Harris of the UK magazine The Engineer wrote up the staff’s Top 10 Technologies of 2010. Most year-end top-10 lists are reasonably predictable, and this one’s no exception, sporting the iPad, glasses-free 3D screens, brain implants for the paralyzed, the Terrafugia flying car (sorry, Moller) and two important British aviation developments, a new stealth fighter and an awesome unmanned non-scramjet spaceplane.

But the point of a top 10 list, for me, is to see how my memory is and to see what I missed. By far the coolest thing I missed on this list was The Engineer’s article on using the additive manufacturing technology in 3D printing to create human organs. 3D printing, in case you don’t know, is where a 3-dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of materials. It’s used extensively for industrial modeling applications, and has been proposed for use in paleontology (recreating fossils) archaeology (mimicking priceless artifacts for study), forensic pathology and crime scene recreation.

Now, as it turns out, at the end of 2009 the world’s first 3D “bioprinter” went into experimental operation:

The first ’3D bio-printer’ for making human tissue and organs became available at the end of last year. Produced for a San Diego biotechnology company, Organovo, by Australian automation specialist Invetech, the machine is being evaluated by research institutions studying regenerative medicine – the technique of growing organs using cultures of a patient’s own cells.

The bio-printer is based on research by a group led by Prof Gabor Forgacs at the University of Missouri. It combines two separate disciplines: the layer-by-layer building of solid objects through a printing-related technology; and the still mysterious ability of proteins and other biological materials to organise and self-assemble into complex structures.


Wikipedia tells me that the device uses Organovo’s proprietary NovoGen technology. According to The Engineer, the technology promises to make the organ transplant list “a thing of the past.”  The current rendition of the $200,000 machines are strictly for research purposes, and are clearly a few years away from being in clinical use even on an experimental level. But proposed uses include creating skin grafts for burn victims as well as producing arterial grafts and ultimately solid organs.

What I didn’t realize is that additive technology, which is the underlying technology behind 3D printing, is already used to produce medical and dental implants, according to a related article:

…By far the biggest adopter of additive technology is the medical devices sector and, around the world, many patients sport hip replacements, dental crowns or even cranial implants that have been produced by clinicians on laser-sintering machines. Indeed, the largest-volume application of additive manufacturing is in the production of hearing aids, with customised hearing-aid casings now almost exclusively made using additive techniques.

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