3D printers are absolutely amazing. We already know they can make everything from camera lenses to working guns to robotic prosthetics. But the technology behind 3D printing has far cooler applications than just making plastic models and copies of commercial products. In fact, it can be used to create working body parts. Full-sized, working organs aren’t that far off – and human tissue printing is already here.
A company called Organovo uses 3D printing technology to create smaller, simpler versions of organs. It works in a very similar way to your regular 3D printer, but with living cells in place of plastic. The cells, suspended in a liquid called Bio-Ink, are printed in layers to form a living organ.
Incredible, right? But what can you do with a tiny human heart, other than maybe make a miniature Frankenstein? Well, aside from the obvious – use it as a stepping stone toward making full-sized organs – these little body parts serve an important function: namely, for drug testing. With small organs to test new medications on, we can replace animal testing and speed up the process of drug development.
Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, backed by the US Department of Defense, have also developed 3D printers that can print miniature organs – and even putting several organs together and measuring their response to diseases and drugs as a system. The tiny organs are then infused with a blood substitute, set on a chip, and monitored by sensors that keep track of temperature, oxygen levels, pH, and more.
The researchers’ hope is to eventually create a “body on a chip.” From LiveScience:
The 2-inch “body on a chip” would represent a realistic testing ground for understanding how the human body might react to dangerous diseases, chemical warfare agents and new drugs intended to defend against biological or chemical attacks. Such technology could speed up drug development by replacing less-ideal animal testing or the simpler testing done on human cells in petri dishes — and perhaps save millions or even billions of dollars from being wasted on dead-end drug candidates that fail in human clinical trials.
Kind of makes those 3D printed plastic camera mounts sound like child’s play, eh?