I think it is safe to say that when 3D printing was invented, it seemed it was heralding a new and exciting future where with the press of a button, you could print what ever you needed or wanted. Most of that vision has come to life relatively quickly (shoes, motors, guns, etc), and the market for 3D-printed objects is already worth $777 million. But other applications in the 3D printing world are taking much longer. One avenue of 3D printing is bio-printing, or in layman’s terms, printing technology used to create human tissue for medical uses.
For inanimate body parts, the technology has made successful giant leaps: an 83 year-old Dutch woman got a new jaw, Welsh doctors rebuilt a man’s face, and an American baby now has a fixed windpipe, all due to parts made by 3D printers. While printing incredibly specific parts of replacement bone and cartilage is totally do-able today, the challenge now comes with printing live organs.
Firstly, organs such as livers, kidneys, and even hearts are made of specific cells, all arranged in complicated layers and structures. This requires a higher level of programming, to get an anatomically correct product. However it can be done with the most basic inkjet printers, by just replacing the ink cartridges with live cells. While that difficult process can be, and has been, overcome, scientists then face a harder obstacle: these organs are made of live tissue, meaning the cells need a constant supply of blood. Our bodies do with this with thousands of capillaries, and the same must be done to create organs in the lab that last long enough to be used in transplants. Scientists have created working capillaries for the organs they have printed– one university in China has created a small kidney that lasted four months. Printing organs is still very much still in the research stages, but scientists predict that in the next decade or so, fully-functioning organs could be available for transplants.
Even if printed human organs could be used, this technology faces even more difficulties: getting through the FDA tests, getting investors for the long-term, etc. However, if successful, bio-printing organs would obviously revolutionize parts of the medical world. It may even “save the economy billions on a global scale, whilst boosting weak or war-torn countries’ access to more affordable health care and provision”. On the other side, in the early stages it may be too expensive for most to get a bio-printed transplant, which may make it difficult to make the innovation beneficial to the entire world. Either way, most groups are beginning to make organ tissue samples available for drug testing, taking out the need for animal testing. Organovo, pioneers in this field, “point out that the cost of drugs that fail is estimated at about 40 percent of all drug spending. ‘So if the drug spending is more than $50 billion per year, there is an opportunity to save more than $20 billion’”.
When 3D-printed organs become available there is no question it will change the face of medical technology forever. The bio-printing industry will most likely be worth $1.9 billion by 2025 and drive the entire 3D printing market to $8.4 billion, with medical, automotive, and aerospace industries taking up 84% of the market. Currently the bio-printing market is only a measly 1.5% of the 3-D printing market, but it is growing fast. The lines between man and machine are starting to blur even more and the questions of whether or not we are playing God may arise when this exciting technology is finally viable.