Medical 3D printing is already a standard in education and surgery preparation. How much longer does science need to create artificial organs and tissues? Well, the technology is closer than it seems.
Additive techniques have taken medicine to a whole new level. Although 3D printing was invented back in the 1980s, a lot has happened since then. It is still difficult for us to define the limits of applications for this technology, especially in medical treatment. Detailed anatomical models of healthy and pathological organs can be printed for scientific purposes, surgeons preparing for surgery use printouts made from internal scans of the patient, and engineers design surgical devices and individual operating instruments that are allowed to come into contact with living tissue. Will we soon also see artificial organs printed on 3D printers?
Revolution in prosthesis manufacturing
3D printing has made it possible to use treatment methods unimaginable just a few decades ago. From the way surgeries are performed to the development of new therapies and the manufacturing of medical devices, the speed at which innovations are being introduced is increasing with each passing year. Industry is currently undergoing a transformation that increases the involvement of incremental methods in manufacturing processes. The same is true for the medical industry, with more and more manufacturers beginning to use 3D printing in the design of medical implants and instruments. An example is the use of custom-made prosthetics after tumor surgery in the jaw area. Before rapid prototyping methods were popularized, this type of prosthesis had to be handmade after the damaged bone was already removed. The old technology did not allow for a perfect fit of the prosthesis to the surrounding bones, which hindered the healing process and often led to later complications
With additive technologies and reverse engineering, a computer model can be created from an internal scan of pathological tissue to serve as a template for the shape of a titanium prosthesis. The spongy structure of the print makes it similar to natural bone, allows the tissue to settle on its surface, and is a perfect match to the healthy bone elements that remain in the human body. The increasing number of biocompatible materials (those that are accepted by the body without complications), increase in the quality of prints, speed of construction and simplification of the use of machines make additive technologies more and more attractive for prosthesis manufacturers and the whole medical industry. Not only endoprostheses are being printed – individually designed orthoses and components for external prostheses are also increasingly prepared using additive technology. Nevertheless, the full potential of this technology is still far from being realized.
Living cell tissue straight from the printer
To successfully open up new areas of medical applications for 3D printing, innovative materials are needed. They must be extremely durable, but also biocompatible. When it comes to the human body, all elements introduced into it must be of the highest quality – there can be no unforeseen reactions associated with the rejection of a foreign body. This doesn’t just apply to mechanical titanium endoprostheses, but also to living organic tissues. Thanks to advanced cell printing research, this topic is no longer total science fiction. In 2019, scientists in Israel managed to print a human heart – with cells and blood vessels. Although it was unlikely to function as a replacement organ – it was the size of a rabbit heart and lacked the ability to contract synchronously – it still became a sensation in the scientific world. Back in 2016, research on inserting blood vessel implants into the bodies of mice proved successful
A year later, scientists from Chicago succeeded in something extraordinary – the infertile mice they studied already began to release oocytes after a week after implanting printed artificial ovaries. The organs made of a kind of gelatin allowed three mice to get pregnant and give birth to healthy offspring. The freshly mummies were also able to lactate – meaning that their hormones continued to work properly despite the earlier removal of their natural ovaries. The building structure of the artificial organs is a biological hydrogel – a mixture of 99% water and 1% polymer that is soft and durable enough for a living organism. Scientists are now planning similar studies on pigs, and if all goes well, they will move on to work with humans. The state of current research shows that printed human replacement organs are no longer just a theory, but a viable direction for medical development in the near future
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