Occasionally a newspaper headline or article can cause you to have a giddy spell sitting down and I swear it’s because you can feel a paradigm shifting – or at least your own personal worldview undergoing a radical reorganisation.
It just happened to me this morning when I read about the US company Organovo having made a small piece of human liver using 3D printing technology.
Hang on tight to your armchair if you’ve just had a similar feeling come over you: 3D printing of human organs? What!
OK – lets back up. I am still getting my head around the whole 3D printing business. For a start I wish it was called 3D layering to make a distinction from the type of 3D printing that was more akin to sculpting you structure from a solid block of material. But putting that aside the possibilities of 3D printing are scary enough in themselves. A marvellous example of the potential of 3D printing was shown on the BBC’s QI programme. It involved a model of Theo Jansen’s fabulous wind-powered walking robot Strandbeest. This fabulous piece of multilegged (12-20) magic can walk along the beach, step back from the water and store air for quieter moments – all without metal parts or additional power. A marvellous thing in itself is the Strandbeest!
This is also a great way of showing the potential of 3D layering printing. As illustrated on the BBC a model Strandbeest can be ‘3D printed’ – even though it contains 76 interlocked moving parts. It should be underlined that this is not printed and then constructed – the Strandbeest emerges from the printer ready to move – only the propeller has to be added (the rotary axle is obviously a tricky thing to print) although the propeller is also printed too, of course; just separately.
A 3D printer uses a laser to fuse the powdered plastic that is put down on a surface in successive layers by the ‘printing’ process. The object is built up in this fashion, layer by layer. The potential is amazing – although the thought of ‘one shot’ printed guns (as seen recently on CSI)) is rather frightening.
However, how do you go from there to printed organs?
Well, the analogy to 3D printing does hold up however you don’t use ink or powdered plastic of course, instead you need bio-ink; as one group of innovators have called the base material. This ink contains multli-cellular particules which are then directed onto a suitable substrate (bio-paper)by a moving bioprinter that defines the initial shape of the proto-tissue. Because the particles of the bio-ink have a capability to self-organise they will undergo a process of post printing fusion to the 3D characteristics of the a tissue/organ – given the right particles of course!
This process has some aspects in common with early morphogenesis where physical mechanisms are a crucial component of development. It has been used to produce beating cardiac material and more recently a 20 layer deep piece of liver.
Without departing too far into the realms of science fiction the possibilities for transplant science, drug testing and research are pretty staggering.
Hang onto your seats everyone, who knows what is ahead!