3D printing living cells may sound like something out of a SciFi novel — but it is possible. Recent advances in 3D printing technology allow researchers to print cells in a biodegradable matrix, creating organs, bones, and skin grafts. Though this practice is strictly experimental, with further research and development, it could have major implications in medical and biological fields.
What is bioprinting?
Bioprinting is printing living cells with 3D printing technology. Rather than filament or another substrate, these 3D printers deposit cells, layer by layer, to create a living tissue. Bioprinters deposit cells along with a gel or degradable substance for protection and support. Organovo, a bioprinting company, discovered that cells can even grow together when printed in loose structures. The living cells can rearrange, grow and fill gaps once printed— just like they do in embryos.
Bioprinting came to life in 2002, when professor Makoto Nakamura discovered that ink droplets are similar in size to human cells. This striking discovery led him to retrofit an inkjet printer into a technology capable of printing cells. By 2008, Organovo developed a printer that could print blood vessels and cardiac tissues. Initial prototypes used cells extracted from chickens, but today, the technology can print using cells cultured from humans.
Researchers expect this technology to have major applications in the medical field. For example, bioprinted tissues can be used for drug toxicology tests, rather than sacrificing animals. Organovo hopes to bioprinter blood vessels for use in heart bypass surgeries. Other prototypes suggest using bioprinting to print bones and organs. This could develop an on demand tissue technology, which could use a patients own cells, thereby eliminating the risk of rejection after transplants.
As the technology develops, it is worth considering how to apply it outside the medical field. Consider the idea of printing coral or invertebrate tissues for scientific testing. This could yield controlled, in vitro studies on stressors influencing coral bleaching, without sacrificing natural coral. Bioprinting also has potential to expand outreach opportunities and literally bring 3D marine biology into the hands of people around the world. Bioethics aside, it is an intriguing development in 3D printing capabilities.