As 3D printing technology moves from the experimental stage to the production stage, enormous possibilities emerge to solve difficult problems. 3D printing makes car spare parts to toys to furniture. But using 3D printing in biology is moving ahead slowly but surely: welcome to “bioprinting.” The dream of bioprinting to build human organs such as hearts is moving toward reality. This sounds a little bit like science fiction, but Dr. Stuart Williams, interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on GPS , mentioned this boldly: “We are not that far from achieving this dream.” Dr. Williams, at the University of Louisville, was talking about the BioAssemblyBot 3D robot. The robot prints several parts of the heart. Dr. Williams predicts “We think we can do it in 10 years — that we can build, from a patient’s own cells, a total ‘bioficial’ heart.”
To explain 3D bioprinting, 5 important pillars of the technology should be explained:
- 3D printing creates organs using the help of CT scans and MRI’s, which are very common in medicine. Researchers used a 3D image of a baby’s heart and fed it to the robot. This work, published in The New England Journal of Medicine , produced a part that restored the breathing of a baby at the University of Michigan.
- There are several kinds of 3D printing.
- A Robot with two print heads. One head uses human cells and the other uses hydrogen or anything which can support the model.
- Inkjet printing where multiple cell types are printed on a clean surface.
- A six-axis printing robot. The robot prints several parts simultaneously and the parts are moved finally to fit together accordingly.
- 3D bioprinting of tissues and organs can be used to test drug interactions with the organs. This is a promising area of saving human cells as well as animals in pharmaceutical testing creating a cost effective and ethical option for the researchers.
- 3D printing of veins and vessels are a big challenge to the technology. Arteries, capillaries, and veins are an extremely complicated system to map. This is similar to trying to print a tree with millions of big branches and small leaves. Having said that, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania printed blood vessel network templates from sugar which can dissolve without harming other cells. Harvard researchers printed the whole vessels by integrating them with skin cells.
- 3D printing of live cells and tissues still can be rejected by the body — a challenge that needs to be solved before moving forward with this. Luckily, this part of the science is already developed because of recent success in organ transplants.
As 3D printing is becoming popular, startup companies are coming to the playground. Louis Columbus from Forbes magazine said that the initial estimate of 3D printing growth of 3.07 billion dollars to 9 billion dollars by 2020 has been recalculated to 21 billion dollars using the Wholers report estimate published in 2014. Please see the graph below:
Likewise, 3D printing stocks have enjoyed tremendous runaway growth. As an example of this growth, the 3D System company’s (NYSE:DDD) sales increased by 27% from 2013 to 2014 resulting in $610 million in sales. This tremendous growth is predicted by many financial analysts to continue.
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