Printing New Parts

by Jacob Dahlke, Bioethics Program Alum (MSBioethics 2012)

So this happened. “3-D Printer makes life-saving splint for baby boy’s airway.” Take a moment. Let that sentence wash over you for a moment. I envision it as a TV drama, with the surgeon rushing down the hallway, mask on and gloved hands pointed to the ceiling. Turning a corner, through the double doors and into the … IT department? I can hear it now, with the printer noise not unlike the old-school dot matrix printer, grinding and loud.

I suppose the scene was perhaps not quite the same. But the impact may be just as dramatic. 3-D printing is a relatively new technology in general, with home printers around longer than many people realize. And aside from the recent news of 3-D printers being used for other reasons, using them to make body parts compels some space-age style potential. Even this notion of making body parts is not new; I personally had my first exposure to it in 2007 when I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Anthony Atala‘s lab at Wake Forest. Not just bladders, but tissues, heart valves, bones, blood vessels, and soon entire limbs. How does this play into medicine today, and how could it be utilized to enact real change for patients?

One area of obvious impact is in the realm of organ donation. If one thinks about it, organ donation is a raw and crude process. Granted, the field has advanced dramatically since its inception. But the premise has always been fatally flawed, in my opinion; namely, the attempt to combine alien tissues with native ones in the setting of having to suppress an entire immune system. But if the new tissues were somehow recognized as familial – or better, if they were genetically identical to the host – then the rigorous process associated with immunosuppression could be put to rest. And that’s where 3-D printing comes in.

Let’s say I want to print an ear. Traditional printers take the digital image of the ear, use ink and spray it out onto a substrate, paper. It is spit out in a specific pattern based upon its digital instructions. 3-D printers use the same process, but use a more complicated (3-D) set of instructions (multiple pics of the ear to enable a composite image from all angles), with an often plastic-like ‘ink’ that dries as a solid, which can then be built upon by the next layer of printed instructions. The resulting product is a three dimensional object that looks like, well, an ear. But if the plastic-like ink were replaced by a different material altogether, or even by living cells, then the resulting object would have the potential for actually being put to use. Even better, if those living cells weren’t just any old cells but ones from the host himself, then it could be attached without having to trick the body into thinking it’s a foreign object.

I think that this technology holds great promise for medicine, as ethical concerns often arise with limited organs available to donate. It remains to be seen how this can help alleviate this vital but scarce resource, but I cannot help but believe that it will at least will improve medicine in the very near future. After all, “the future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” – William Gibson

Besides, 3-D is already passé. 4-D is where it’s at.

[This blog entry was originally posted in slightly edited form on Mr. Dahlke’s blog on May 28, 2013. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Bioethics Program or Union Graduate College.]


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