Dating back a few decades, the idea of creating three dimensional objects from a printer sounded implausible because in our imaginations printing was only limited to a piece of paper. However, in recent years the use of 3D printing also, referred as additive manufacturing has become as common as traditional printing methods. It might come to you as a surprise that the first 3D printer was introduced in 1986 by Charles W.Hull and that only in the early 2000’s 3D printing gained the popularity momentum.
But in the world of manufacturing 3D printing is still at an emerging state, like the new kid on the block trying to climb the acceptability ladder. The process of 3D printing involves the layering of material under computer control to form 3D objects, leading to an up rise in the era of reductive or traditional manufacturing. Reductive manufacturing is the current go to in the manufacturing sector, which involves the construction of 3D objects by successively cutting material away from a solid block of material using a computer numerical control (CNC) machine.
What is 3D Printing?
Some other traditional manufacturing methods include injection molding, plastic forming and plastic joining. 3D printing possess various advantages over traditional manufacturing methods such as; 3D printing process is faster, it minimizes waste of material, it produces high quality finished product, can be used to manufacture a range of products with varying shapes and sizes, and can be cost effective in small scale production. Due to an emergence of on-demand manufacturing, manufacturers are giving 3D printing some serious consideration. The application of this new technology has caught the eye of various industries ranging from plastic manufactures to medical professionals. 3D printing is applicable in the food industry, automobile industry, aerospace, electronics, computer science, medicine, pharmaceutical research and the list can go on and on.
Since, now we are familiar with the idea of 3D printing, what if I told you that we can use the same technology to print organs? Yes, live human organs that can be used for organ transplant purposes can now be manufactured by 3D printing. This may sound like an idea from a sci-fi film but the advances made in 3D printing technology have led to the development of 3D bioprinting. This technology although in its initial stages has already proved to be revolutionary in the area of medical science and has provided a pathway for greater research advancements. The process of 3D bioprinting is very similar to regular 3D printing, where human cells (usually stem cells) are used as the ink for the printer instead of a polymer which is used in a 3D printer. The cells are referred to as bio-ink and are mixed with a binding agent (hydrogel) to provide structural support. Computer software (CAD) is used to design the object to be printed e.g. a bladder which is then synthesized by the 3D bioprinter. Once the bioprint has been constructed it is left for growth and maturation.
The concept might sound bizarre but using this technology, scientists have been able to successfully print human bladders, skin grafts, cartilage, vasculature, heart and neuronal tissues. An increasingly ageing population, the threat of trauma and disease, the scarcity of donors and immune rejection during transplants have increased the need of 3D bioprinting of tissues/organs. One of the major advantages of 3D bioprinting is that patient specific information can be directly incorporated into the bio-fabrication process, hence minimizing the chances of immune rejection.
Not only does the technology have an implication in constructing human organs but it also makes a contribution in medical research. For many years, cells have been grown in two dimensional (2D) for various research purposes i.e. pharmaceutical research, cancer research, genetic research etc. But such 2D models do not provide an accurate representation of our three dimensional body, hence the results attained from such experiments have vulnerabilities. However, 3D printing cells and tissue overcomes such challenges and provides a new direction in the domain of science and engineering, making a substantial impact on medical science and increasing the efficacy of future treatments.
The technology of 3D bioprinting has opened an innovative pathway for our future. Now we can imagine a world where patients don’t have to wait years for a donor or live in a fear of organ rejection. By using this technology we can create medicines specific to the patients and treat them more effectively, also possibly make a breakthrough in cancer research and find a cure. It is predicted that in next 30 years the advancement in 3D bioprinting will lead to a new era in medical science.
About the Author
Shalini Guleria is currently pursuing her Masters in Tissue Engineering where her research is focused on developing better treatment and detection techniques for Cancer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering from the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Shalini has won two consecutive national awards at the prestigious Sir Paul Callaghan Eureka Awards for engineers and scientists.
Apart from sciences, she is also a highly talented artist. At this magazine, Shalini will bring us the latest from the cutting edge of biotechnology and medical research in a highly informative column.