How will 3D printed body parts change the way we die?
From 3D printed bones to bio-printed muscle tissue, here’s a quick look at the quest to print major human organs. There’s a huge shortage of organs available for life saving organs; in the UK alone, 900,000 deaths could be delayed or prevented by organ tissue transplants. Rather than being a zany experiment, bio-printed body parts might just help us live longer and prevent early death. Here’s how.
Printing off artificial body parts sounds weird, so why do it?
According to Organ Donation NHS, patients now wait an average of 944 days for a kidney transplant on the NHS. There’s a similar shortage of liver, lungs and other organs. On a wider scale, the World Health Organisation predicts that organ transplants are achieving less than 10% of the global demand.
Printing off artificial body parts might sound like a strange playing-at-God experiment, but it’s also one of the most innovative and genuinely positive aspects of new tech in healthcare.
How are 3D printers used in healthcare at the moment?
After custom-made body parts were successfully 3D-printed, researchers attempted to implant certain parts into animals. It worked. Samples of artificial muscle tissue, very small muscles themselves, cartilage and sections of bone all functioned normally when implanted into more simple systems. Check out the (quite dry) write-up here.
In 2018, the first 3D printed cornea transplant was performed, and the year before that a child had a life-saving kidney transplant using 3D printing.
But the tech doesn’t stop there. While researchers can now print “hyperelastic” bones – where a replacement model of a bone is printed in calcium phosphate – that merge and become part of existing bone, researchers are developing ways of printing actual tissue cells.
Can bioprinters create human cells?
Replacing individual human cells by simply printing another batch off seems like the stuff nightmares. Creating body parts that meet the body’s need for repair and regeneration, though, requires complex biotech.
Cells require specialized conditions to grow and develop, but to pass through a 3D printer, these materials also need to be smooth enough to keep specialized bioprinters from jamming.
Like the inkjet printer gathering dust under your desk, bioprinters – souped-up 3D printers specifically designed to print body parts – build structures using layers. A few up-and-coming companies are trialling machines that print 3D structures, such as human tissues, by layering microdrops of cells on a surface. Read about the company pioneering “biological ink” that could be used in various printers to print different types of cell tissue.
Can 3D printers create major organs?
There’s still a few glitches to printing artificial replacements for major organs, though. Bioprinters don’t replicate the conditions in which cells and tissues grow inside the body, they instead create building blocks for bone and muscle growth.
Printing major organs, like hearts, lungs or livers, is still a long way off. Organs require functioning capillary structures; without them it’s impossible to create them. Until the tech catches up, don’t forget your donor card!
Find out more
Death isn’t just a lengthy admin process or choosing between an overwhelming array of funeral flowers, it’s also your digital death. This is everything from what happens to your lifetime’s worth of emails, to all those collected geo-location pins. Take a look at our Digital Death page here.