Kinko’s Can’t Print This:
The Adaptation of ALM for Bioprinting
The previous article discussed advancements in additive layer manufacturing (ALM, more commonly known as 3D printing), resulting in the creation of entire architectural structures. Understandably, this development had many 3D-printer-enthusiasts excited, due to the scale of the project and the attraction of a more mainstream audience; yet perhaps the most life-altering application for this technology is the use of ALM to produce bones, organic tissues and cartilage in a process known as bioprinting.
These body parts are produced in a manner similar to all 3D printed objects, except the medium used is known as a bio-ink and must be “printed” in a more mild manner and at cooler temperatures to preserve the integrity of bioactive molecules and macroproteins, and ensure compatibility with living cells. The bioink is similar to hydrogels used in other ALM processes, but is often derived from algae or gelatin as opposed to plastic or synthetic polymers; however, biodegradable plastics are often used in the initial printing phase to help maintain structural integrity.
By using biomaterials, scientists reduce the risk of the implant being rejected by the host and are able to forgo designing and producing a complex piece of machinery in lieu of a functioning organ or limb. The process is able to produce soft tissue and muscle, but also cartilage and bone, allowing patients to receive everything from lab-grown ears and vaginas, to jaw bones, noses and windpipes.
Beyond saving lives via transplant, scientists are also using printed tissues to test the efficacy and safety of various drugs. An article posted by The Economist in January of this year explains, “it will please animal-rights activists, as it should cut down on the number of animal trials. It will please drug companies, too, since the tissue being tested is human, so the results obtained should be more reliable than ones from tests on other species.”
Currently, transplants require a donor, either one who is living (as is common for a kidney) or a victim of accident (as for a heart), and there are millions of people waiting for such an opportunity. Yet even when such a patient gets lucky, there is the possibility of the tissue or organ being rejected by the host’s body; however, because the bioprinted object will be made using the patient’s own pluripotent stem cells, the rejection rate of such transplants should be virtually zero.
Bioprinting will allow patients to receive brand-new body parts made from their own DNA, as with organs, or parts designed to fit their exact body shape, as with a jaw bone or vertebrae.