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Op-Ed: The big breakthrough — 3D printed living tissues have arrived

By Paul Wallis     Feb 18, 2016 in Technology
If your jaw just dropped when you saw that, it’s OK; they can replace it with a 3D printed jaw. Printing functional living structures is now possible.
Inorganic implants, like bones and teeth, have been around for a while, but this is brand new.
The organic 3D printing method is called bioprinting, and this bioprinter goes by the name of Integrated Tissue-Organ Printer, or ITOP. It was developed by Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina. Findings were published in Nature this week.
The 3D printed tissue had a few major obstacles to overcome first:
1. If living tissues are more than .02mm from blood vessels or nutrients, they die. This is called the diffusion limit, and it was a big problem. The solution: Build micro channels in to biodegradable plastic so blood vessels can grow as the plastic dissolves. It’s a simple, known methodology, (dissolving stitches work basically the same way) noninvasive, and avoids interfering with healing.
2. The other issue was that the new tissue has to be viable for transplantation. Adding the structural materials also creates a good, strong base for the new tissue. (Normal tissue, if removed in a layer, looks like incredibly thin grease proof paper, and is extremely fragile and very difficult to handle. Even multiple layers are still very vulnerable.)
This is a multi-nozzle printing operation, using different feeds for different materials. The materials are contained in separate cartridges, and the feed is controlled like a regular 3D printer.
So far, ITOP already has a list of credentials to boast, including:
Using this method, the team says it has printed a human-sized ear, a section of muscle tissue and a human-sized jaw bone fragment using human, rabbit, rat and mouse cells.
ITOP also enables replacement tissues to be precisely customized to patients before surgery by using imaging data.
In the case of the jaw, they simply scanned a defective jaw, and implanted the various necessary components in rats and mice, where the components grew nerves and blood vessels. (Note: nerves are slow growers, and can take months to grow a few millimetres.)
The revolution has arrived, after a century of cosmetic and prosthetic surgery
Since World War 1, cosmetic surgery has gone from replacing faces blown off by shrapnel with wood (Yes, wood; carved to match missing bone) and ceramics to high detail cosmetic surgery using nanometre scales. It’s taken an alliance of biology, medicine, computer tech, and some pretty damn ambitious research to crack the problem.
Bear in mind ITOP has taken the very first baby steps of this new tech. It could, and probably will, rapidly revolutionize and drastically improve the range of surgical options for serious tissue damage. The ability to replace significant sections of lost or defective tissue is a major new horizon, both for surgery and a vast array of medical condition management types.
3D printing can deliver an actual fix, as well as a cosmetic fix. It can de-traumatize patients by giving them realistic hope of finally ending their problems. That said, there’s another, likely to be very lucrative, application for this technology — much better cosmetic surgery to deal with the many cosmetic horror stories caused by birth defects, injuries, assaults and accidents. Replacing humanity’s unholy collection of unsightly scars is another useful option.
ITOP is the icing on the cake — real living tissue. It actually is a dream come true, in so many ways. Artificial prostheses, historically, have been as good as they could be, but this is the extra step that will make all the difference.
Even better, as medical and cosmetic surgery practitioners would agree — if there are any problems, ITOP can fix them, too. Even a botched cosmetic job is no longer a sentence to suffering if you can simply replace it.
If they’re giving out Nobel Prizes for practical solutions, I suggest ITOP gets one. It’ll be the first, perhaps of many, for 3D printing.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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