3D Bioprinting: Living Prints
Written By: Elizabeth Ham 07.08.19
3D printing isn't just for plastics. Scientists and bioengineers are working on 3D printing living and organic materials. This is known as 3D bioprinting. 3D bioprinting has huge implications for health care, especially surgery.
3D printing has come a long way since Charles Hull created the first 3D printer in 1983. Today, you can 3D print bicycles, phone cases, and miniature models of your favorite celebrities. You might have read about 3D printers being used to create custom medical devices, from mouth guards to prosthetics. You can buy a 3D printer for your home that costs less than $300 dollars and uses spools of plastic to make objects. However, 3D printing isn't just for plastics. Scientists and bioengineers are working on 3D printing living and organic materials. This is known as 3D bioprinting. 3D bioprinting has huge implications for health care, especially surgery.
3D printing is also called additive manufacturing. That's because 3D printers work by building a shape layer by layer, adding material exactly where it needs to go. In bioprinting, the goal of 3D printing is to create tissue, which refers to any cluster of living cells working together.
In orthopedic procedures, surgeons often fill empty space with a bone scaffold graft to encourage bone growth. A scaffold is simply a structure that supports a damaged tissue (like a bone) and contains cells which help that damaged tissue heal. When your bones come into contact with a bone scaffold, it signals bone cells that it's time to grow more bone in that area. Traditionally, these bone scaffold grafts are created from bigger pieces of bone tissue that has been milled down to the correct size. The bone tissue can come from a tissue donor, or it can be removed from another bone in the patient's body. Either way, it's expensive and time consuming to use bone tissue from people.
Bioengineers often use hydrogels for 3D printing cell scaffolds. These gels contain lots of water, creating an environment where cells can survive. Once living cells are embedded into the gel, the hydrogel is used as ink in a specialized 3D printer. Bone scaffolds can be 3D printed with the characteristics a patient needs to promote fast and healthy bone growth.
Bioprinting is most common in orthopedics, but it has the potential to replace our organ donor system. Currently, bioprinting is limited to cell scaffolds. Either the scaffolds are implanted into your body, where your body forms new tissue around the scaffold, or the scaffolds are matured in a bioreactor, which allows the cells to grow into tissue outside of the body. Bioengineers are researching how to 3D print living tissues without using scaffolds at all. The end goal is to 3D print organs that can be transplanted into people, without requiring any organ donors.
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