University biomedical engineering students
designed and built a robotic prosthetic arm for
teenager Sydney Kendall of St. Louis. Sydney
requested that her new arm be pink. She lost her
arm in a boating accident when she was 6 years
JOSE, Calif. ó It sounds like something from a science
fiction plot: So-called three-dimensional printers are
being used to fashion prosthetic arms and hands, jaw
bones, spinal-cord implants ó and one day perhaps even
living human body parts.
the parts printed for humans so far have been fashioned
from plastic, metal and other inorganic materials,
researchers in California and elsewhere also have begun
printing living tissue, with the goal of eventually
employing these "bioprinters" to create
customized kidneys, livers and other organs for people
needing transplants. Whatís particularly attractive
about the technology, according to its proponents, is
that 3-D printers can produce body parts much quicker
and cheaper than other methods.
can make things for tens of dollars rather than
thousands of dollars," said Stanford University
professor Dr. Paul Wang, a cardiovascular and
bioengineering expert who is among those studying the
printersí potential for prosthetics, replacement bones
and other applications. "Itís totally opened up
in the 1980s by physicist Charles Hull, 3-D printers
have been used to make everything from jewelry, toys and
guns to smartphone cases, car components and portions of
NASAís robotic Mars rover. Last year, a Chinese firm
even constructed a five-story apartment building from
3-D-printed walls and other pieces.
the process varies, 3-D printing typically involves
using an inkjet-like printer that extrudes layer upon
layer of substances into shapes digitally fashioned with
computer-aided-design software. Applied to medicine in
recent years, the technology is producing remarkable
results. People missing limbs or suffering other
physical problems have been outfitted with printed arms,
hands, shoulder joints, heel bones and portions of
spines, hips, faces and skulls, among other things.
Products of San Francisco 3-D-prints
"fairings," which fit around prosthetic legs
to make them look more natural. And a researcher for
software company Autodesk is helping Ugandan officials
learn how to print other prosthetic leg parts for
children in that country.
among the most ambitious dreams for the technology is
that it will prove useful for making implantable human
tissue, especially organs, which are in short supply,
said Carlos Olguin, who is part of an Autodesk research
team he describes as "looking at life as a new
design frontier." Replacement organs, he said, are
a "need that is not being satisfied at all in many
company working on that problem with Autodeskís help
is Organovo of San Diego.
a combination of cells in what it terms
"bio-ink," Organovo already has 3-D-printed
blood vessels as well as liver, lung and breast-tumor
tissues for laboratory studies of potential treatments
for cancer, Parkinsonís disease and pulmonary
hypertension. Although the company has yet to be
profitable since it was incorporated in 2007, it has
forged partnerships with several research institutions
and drug companies, including giant Hoffman La Roche.
experts caution that printing viable replacement organs
will prove extremely difficult, especially for such
complex organs as the brain. In addition, itís hard to
print the blood-vessel networks needed to replenish
organs with oxygen and nutrients. Nonetheless,
University of Pennsylvania researchers say theyíve
designed a way to print those networks and a Russian
company, 3-D Bioprinting Solutions, has vowed this year
to 3-D-print a transplantable thyroid gland, which is
laced with blood vessels.
other researchers are 3-D-printing insulin-producing
pancreatic tissues to help manage diabetes, viruses that
can attack cancer cells and organ models that surgeons
can practice on or that can be used to help design
Wang, for example, has made a 3-D-printed model of the
heart along with a prototype of a tiny gadget he
envisions one day could crawl though real hearts to
gather information on the organís health or kill cells
that damage it.
business-information firm Visiongain has estimated that
the 3-D-printing medical market could generate about $4
billion in 2018. But Lux Research, which tracks emerging
technologies, has a far more conservative forecast.
Assessing the current market at $25 million annually, it
projects the business will reach no more than $638
million by 2025.
of the biggest challenges for the industry will be
convincing the government of the safety and efficacy of
implanting bioprinted tissues into people, said Anthony
Vicari, a Lux research associate.
think itís going to be held back more than some of the
advocates expect by the difficulty of getting regulatory
approval," he said. "Thatís likely to slow
potential investors could be another barrier, said
Shaochen Chen, a University of California, San Diego
nanoengineering professor experimenting with 3-D
printers to make blood vessels and a liver-like device
that can remove blood toxins.
he believes the business "will be big," he
added, "this is a relatively new field and it takes
a while for people to recognize its importance."
despite such challenges, many people are encouraged by
the impact 3-D printing already is having on health
going to be a long road; there are a lot of hurdles
ahead of us," said Michael Renard, Organovoís
executive vice president for commercial operations.
"But there is a lot thatís showing us itís
worth continuing to move forward."