Organs On Demand

Kate Yandell | The Scientist | September 1, 2013

3-D printing has made inroads in the clinic, but constructing functional complex organs still faces major hurdles.

...As researchers modify and build devices that print with ever greater precision, and invent new biomaterials to serve as ink for these machines, they have been able to make substantial progress on printing ears, spinal discs, heart valves, and bone, which are moving towards the clinic. (See illustration below.) Similarly, simple engineered tissues, such as tracheas and bladders made from cells seeded onto biocompatible scaffolds and created without the use of 3-D printing, have already been inserted into patients. But these tissues have thrived only because they are thin enough not to require extensive infiltration by blood vessels.

These days, 3-D printing, which has been around since the 1980s, calls to mind baubles such as iPhone cases, high-fashion shoes, personalized sex toys, and even working guns. There’s a growing market for personal printers—relatively inexpensive machines that print at fairly low resolution, often using proprietary polymers—for producing such items at home.

But playthings, accessories, and weapons aside, 3-D printing has also made incursions into the medical device business. The 3-D–printing industry brought in $2.204 billion in 2012, $361 million of which was revenue from 3-D printing for medical and dental uses, according to the 2013 Wohlers Report. And researchers are now testing the feasibility of using printers to create patient-specific tissues and organs that may one day be used to supplement scarce donor body parts...