What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing involves various processes to yield a three-dimensional object.  Alternate layers of material are formed with the control of a computer to create a desired object.  The object can be almost any shape and is usually produced based on a 3D model.  The printer itself is a type of industrial robot.  The original sense of the term 3D printing refers to laying down successive layers of material onto a powder bed with inkjet printer heads.  More recently, the definition of the term has expanded to include a variety of techniques.

printable organ

What Is a Printable Organ?

 Organ printing involves using 3D printing techniques to create an artificial device for use in an organ replacement operation.  Currently, researchers are working on artificial hearts, kidneys, livers, as well as other major organs using this process.  Some printed organs have already been used successfully in real patients- including hollow structures such as the bladder, and vascular structures such as urine tubes.  A cellular scaffold of a particular organ is formed layer by layer.  Often the next step involves the process of cell seeding, in which cells are inserted directly onto the scaffold structure with the use of a pipette.


What Are the Challenges of Organ Printing?

 Human-like tissue can be produced by 3D printing devices, the difficult part is creating tissue or an organ that is fully functional.  A non-functioning printed organ is akin to a new car with no engine.  Often the end product is way to small, and these tissues and organs need to be big enough to have a meaningful impact on the patient’s health.  Another big problem arises out of trying to get the printed organ/tissue to meld with the host body.  In order for this to happen the organ/tissue must link up with the patient’s vascular system.  Without a constant supply of nutrient and oxygen-rich blood it will die.  Other obstacles include preventing the printed organ/tissue from being rejected by the host, the difficulty of replicating the complex architecture of certain organs, integrating the printed organ with the patient’s nervous system, and the high monetary and labor costs of producing a functional 3D printed organ.

 Is Organ Printing Ethical?

printable organ

 Although the prospects of using 3D printing in medicine are exciting, there are many ethical questions that need to be answered.  One key issue is the access of this technology.  Since it most certainly will be expensive, should 3D printed organ transplants be allowed if they can only be performed on those who can afford it?  Another thing to consider is the safety of these treatments.  How can we know before the clinical phase that printed organs are safe?  Finally, we need to ask ourselves if this technology should be used to enhance human capabilities, rather than just to save lives.  What if a professional runner asks for a 3D printed lung to improve their endurance, or a soldier asks for titanium bones?


ABC Science