3D bioprinting is a hot term right now, but many people aren’t sure exactly what it’s all about. Bring up bioprinting to someone who is only marginally familiar with it, and their response is likely to be, “Oh, that’s where they’re trying to print organs and stuff, right?” Well…yes, that is one of the ultimate goals of bioprinting. Most people working in the space like to talk about the dream of eliminating donor waiting lists, and creating brand new organs from a patient’s own cells, greatly reducing the risk of rejection. But the day that we see a beating 3D printed heart implanted into the chest of a living human being is still several years away.
Organ transplants are not the be-all, end-all of 3D bioprinting, however. Many people, unless they’re familiar with the industry, are unaware of just how much is being done with the technology already, and how many people are being helped by it, either directly or indirectly. Here are just some of the ways in which bioprinting is already impacting people.
3D Printed Cartilage and Bone
Much research has gone into the 3D printing of 3D printed bone and cartilage. Last year, Australian researchers successfully transplanted 3D printed knee cartilage into sheep, paving the way for human trials and commercialization. While it’s not yet possible to 3D print a functioning organ for human transplant, great progress has been made in treating diseases like arthritis by 3D printing new cartilage. Using a patient’s own stem cells, scientists hope to be able to 3D print pieces of cartilage and transplant them into a diseased or injured joint, where they will integrate with the body, grow and ultimately heal the affected area. This hasn’t actually been done to a human yet, but applications like this are much closer over the horizon than, say, a 3D printed heart.
3D printed bone is also being studied as a way to replace bone that has been lost due to injury or illness. Severe conditions resulting in the loss of bone, if they can be treated at all, are typically treated with bone grafts, which can cause complications or rejection, and may be impossible simply because the patient doesn’t possess enough bone to heal a particular defect. 3D printed bone, again, can be created from a patient’s own cells, making it far less likely to be rejected. It can be 3D printed in any shape or size to match the defect and integrate with existing bone to heal it.
Image Credit: St. Vincent’s Hospital