The machine looks like the offspring of an Erector Set and an inkjet printer. The “ink” feels like applesauce and looks like icing. As nozzles expel the pearly material, layer by layer, you imagine the elaborate designs this device could make on gingerbread cookies.
But the goo is made of living cells, and the machine is “printing” a new body part. These machines, called three-dimensional printers, work very much like ordinary desktop printers. But instead of just putting down ink on paper, they stack up layers of living material to make 3-D shapes. The technology has been around for almost two decades, providing a shortcut for dentists, jewelers, machinists and even chocolatiers who want to make custom pieces without having to create molds.
In the early 2000s, scientists and doctors saw the potential to use this technology to construct living tissue, maybe even human organs. They called it 3-D bioprinting, and it is a red-hot branch of the burgeoning field of tissue engineering. 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. If they succeed, donor waiting lists could become a thing of the past.
Bioprinting technology is years and possibly decades from producing such complex organs, but scientists have already printed skin and vertebral disks and put them into living bodies. So far, none of those bodies have been human, but a few types of printed replacement parts could be ready for human trials in two to five years.
“The possibilities are limitless,” said Lawrence Bonassar, whose lab at Cornell University has printed vertebral tissue that tested well in mice. “Everyone has a mother or brother or uncle, aunt, grandmother who needs a meniscus or a kidney or whatever, and they want it tomorrow. The promise is exciting.” But he warns that nothing is likely to be ready in time to help people who already need an organ. “The goal is not to squash excitement, but to temper it with the reality of what the process is.”
The reality, for now, is that making such things as vertebral disks and knee cartilage is far easier than constructing a complicated organ.
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