From their modest beginnings in the Eighties, the 3D printers have evolved to a point where they start to exceed the limits of our imagination. Two decades ago, a 3D printer could only give you a plastic model, which was very limited in size, while these days they can print whole houses and make it seem like an effortless process. Still, this is not where the story ends, as it is more than obvious that the 3D technology will bring even more surprises in the future.
3D printed limbs represent another crazy idea that might not be that far away. There are already organisations such as e-NABLE that collaborate with designers and 3D architects to create cheap 3D printed prosthetic limbs. These days, you can even choose colours, textures and styles of prosthetic limbs and you can print them for about £30. The Open Hand Project is another interesting initiative that creates 3D printed robotic prosthetics for under £600. Printing a real limb sounds like the next logical step and scientists are already working on making it a reality.
3D printing something alive
As in any other 3D printing process, you need a printer and a building material. To build something organic, you need a printer that uses cells and hydrogel as ink. Naturally, the organic cells are your building material, although they do not stick together as well as printing plastic or cement.
This is why you need to add the hydrogel in the mix. Hydrogel provides structure and its purpose is to keep the cells together in place. The printed tissue of cells and hydrogel will also have to undergo a maturing process before it becomes usable. During the maturing process, hydrogel is gradually removed and the cells form stronger bonds.
All of this may sound complicated, and we have not even mentioned the issue with compatibility. Every tissue is made from different cells and as an added complication; the cells need to be compatible with the potential recipient if the tissue is to be transplanted successfully. Just growing enough compatible cells is a hassle, as it is a Petri dish process that takes a lot of time.
Printing biological limbs
With our current technology, printing a whole live limb is far from possible. However, scientists are on the right track. So far, bioprinters such as the PrintAlive have been used to create skin, tracheas and even whole bladders. These artificial tissues have been successfully grown and transplanted into live human beings. You may ask yourself “So, where is the problem then?” The problem is that a limb is far more complex than a single tissue.
Live limbs are created from many different tissues and current printing procedures only allow a single tissue type to be created at a time. Scientists are working on overcoming this obstacle and hopefully, we will see a more advanced printing technique in the near future.
From robotic aids to full cyborgs
Although printed limbs may not be here yet, you can easily find accessories that can either increase your limbs function or give movement to a paralysed limb. Cyberdyne has made some amazing progress in this field and they have even created a device that can help a person in a wheelchair stand and up walk again. This company has invested a great amount in 3D bioprinting research, so there may come a time when technologies combine and cyborgs become part of our reality. However, this is only something that may happen in the distant future and so far, only the bioprinting potential is being explored.
The potential of bioprinting is enormous. Printing whole organs can make the organ donor list a thing of the past. Today more than 123,000 men, women and children are waiting on the donors list. A new name is added to the list every ten minutes and each day twenty three people die due to the lack of compatible organs. With enough money invested in this technology, people in need of a transplant will only have to wait the amount of time it takes to cultivate the compatible cells as well as the length of the maturing stage.
Companies such as Cyfuse and Organovo suggest that printing organs and limbs can also cause scientific research to rise steeply. Developing drugs and taking them to the human trials phase has proven to be a lengthy and costly procedure. Printed limbs and organs can help researchers reach human trial phase faster and more cheaply, without compromising safety.
It is NOT a pipe dream
It is hoped that 3D bioprinting will reach a stage where whole limbs can be produced is not an unrealistic idea. The technology is here and researchers are already working on it. All that is missing is the adequate funding. Printed organs and printed limbs can give people a second chance in life. Hopefully they will arrive sooner rather than later.
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