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Surprising Science

5 Steps to a 3-D Printed Eyeball

3-D printers are currently capable of producing usable car parts, cat-scanned reproductions of ancient Sumerian clay envelopes with letters inside, and cool-looking geometric desktop toys. That’s very exciting indeed. But what if they could print a transplantable kidney?

Biomedical 3-D printing, while still in its very early stages, promises to revolutionize medicine and save countless future lives. If you’re a billionaire philanthropist looking for a good cause to support, look no further. 

Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, co-authors of Fabricated: the New World of 3-D Printing, explained some of the possibilities and the roadmap to their realization in a recent Big Think interview. “I started becoming interested in 3-D printing actually as a tool to make robots,” Lipson told us:

It gets more exciting when you think about new kinds of structures that you cannot fabricate at all using conventional manufacturing systems . . . Almost any research area that you go into in engineering you could use this thing.  And when you allow for more esoteric material like food materials and biomaterials and so forth, really our ability to fabricate instrumentation and try out new ideas is greatly accelerated. 

But the ability to print human tissue isn’t right around the corner. Melba Kurman describes it as a ladder, with the following rungs: 

1) 3-D printing from X-rays, MRIs, and CAT scans:

“That’s the design file so to speak of bioprinting.  Then there is some very skilled tweaking and adjusting to turn that medical image into a viable file that can actually guide the moments of a 3-D printer.” 

Physicians are currently able to print 3-D models of bone structures

2)  Artificial limbs: 

The company Bespoke Innovations designs and markets custom artificial limbs. 

3) Cartilage and other simple tissues:

“ If you were to climb the ladder and actually venture into living tissue, you’d get into simple body tissue like a cartilage, which tends to be made up of fewer types of cells. It doesn’t have a whole lot of vascular or blood vessels inside of it.” 

Already biomedical researchers have created artificial, implantable cartilage with a 3-D printer that uses “electrospinning,” which can produce porous structures that integrate into surrounding tissue. 

4) Living Ink:

“From there the next step is to create what’s called a hydrogel or some people call it a living ink.  It’s a hydrogel that’s actually seeded with living cells.  And there’s a lot a very interesting research going on right now about experimenting with different types of stem cells and different types of hydrogels.”

5) Complete Organs:

“If we could precisely place stem cells into the exact location and let this printed object gel come to life on its own, that’s where someday there’s a lot of optimism and we can actually print a complete kidney, a complete eyeball.”

We would be honoredfor you to join the Big Think delegation at TEDMED 2013, and in advance of this event, we invite you to contribute your ideas as well. Please lend your perspective by answering this question in the comments below:

“What is the most serious obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to ensure a healthy future?”


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