Adding a New Dimension to Printing

Science, Technology 2013-06-07

Printing has come a long way in recent years.  What was once purely a black and white affair is now disrupting and reshaping industries with its revolutionary approach to manufacturing.


3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is an additive form of processing.  From a digital file, a 3D printer deposits successive layers of material to achieve a solid, three-dimensional object.


Whilst many industries are experimenting with plastic resin and metals, the life sciences sector is testing more sophisticated approaches such as Bio-ink: a liquid made up of living cells that can be deposited and layered to engineer human tissue.


Though still in its early stages, the potential of 3D printing for scientific application is huge.  In a recent interview Michael Renard, Executive Vice President of the pioneering bioprinting company Organovo, discussed how “bioprinting should be thought of as the first step in building fully functional tissue.”


Organovo has demonstrated this technology with its 3D bioprinted liver tissue, further suggesting that the concept of a 3D printer someday building a human organis within grasp.  The emergence of this technology brings multiple advantages that will transform medical research and the healthcare sector.


The use of 3D disease models will enable drug discovery scientists to conclude more accurate data than is achieved by testing on 2D models or animals. A recent article in GEN, ‘Bioprinting in 3D’, states “there is also evidence to suggest that bioprinted tissues maintain their expected biochemical activity longer than many 2D models, as indicated by specific enzyme and gene expression activity indicative of tissue specific metabolic function.”  In terms of drug development this improves safety of potential drugs and can help to determine whether a drug should be taken forward in very expensive human trials.


The 3D creation of tissue patches also shows promise beyond the lab and will eventually benefit patients.  Using the DNA from within a hair sample can create stem cells which in turn can be used to create a personalized medium that can be bioprinted to create skin transplants for burn patients and those suffering from skin disorders.  This would eradicate the pain and imperfections that are often presented by the common skin grafting procedure.


With the ability to materialize organs comes the potential to extend life, providing organs for transplant patients and offering repair to those in need of regenerative medicines.


3D printing has also been known to manufacture replacement dental, limb, knee and spine components.  In the past year a prosthetic lower jaw was 3D printed and implanted into an 83-year-old woman who suffered from chronic bone infection.  The jaw was produced from 33 layers of titanium powder that were heated, fused together and then coated with bio-ceramic artificial bone.


The most recent breakthrough was the 3D printing of a bionic ear with the ability to hear radio frequencies beyond a human’s normal range by interweaving electronics and biological tissue.  Scientists and bionic engineers hope to apply this technology to other human parts in the near future, such as the eyes and nose.  It would appear that we are only a mouse-click away from an array of possibilities.