This is the third and final topic that I discussed at the 25th Penn Trauma Reunion last Friday. Printer technology has progressed from dot-matrix printers (pushing ink out of a cloth ribbon with little metal pins) to laser printers (fusing dye rolled onto the paper) to inkjet printers (blowing little dots of ink onto paper out of a cartridge).
The next logical step was to go beyond printing with small flat dots of ink and using small spheres of plastic. These tiny spheres can be layered on top of each other using a 3D printer using the the same inkjet type technology and then fused together using a laser. These printers are popular in manufacturing, where they can be used to quickly create prototypes or small parts. Orthopedic surgeons have been using them to print out 3D representations of complex fractures to plan reconstructive surgery (click here for details).
Now consider replacing the little plastic spheres with various cell types cultured from a patient. Load up the “ink” cartridges and start printing some tissue! Anthony Atala runs the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University and is a pioneer in using this technique. He is able to print 10×10 cm skin grafts on pigs with good results (read about it here). Atala demonstrated the concept of printing whole organs at the TED2011 conference last year. Watch the YouTube video of a kidney being printed here. At this stage of development, it is not a functioning organ, but it’s a great proof of concept.
I believe that this technology is extremely promising. Printing simple human tissues like skin will not be far off. Although it seems farfetched, the picture below shows what is in store in the future. Hopefully, the days of donated organ shortages is coming to an end.