3D printing right into your spine could make you whole again

Scientists at Cornell University, led by Dr. Lawrence J. Bonasser, are pioneering a spinal surgery that sounds like something straight out of science fiction. Utilizing 3D printing techniques loaded with stem cell-infused bio-ink, they aim to repair the degenerative spinal discs of 30 million ailing Americans. Dr. Bonasser himself was on hand at the New York Inside 3D printing expo to tell us about his fascinating studies.

Dr. Bonasser is no stranger to the world of 3D printing. He's already spearheaded the development of near-perfect prosthetic human ears. But his newest project is stepping even further through the looking glass that is the line between reality and sci-fi.

Imagine an operating room that looks something like a printing bay. The operating table is equipped with a printer head and scanning devices. Soon after the patient is prepped for surgery, the printer begins printing strings of stem cells onto highly specific portions of a patient's spinal disc. Once the surgery is over, the stem cells begin to enact their pre-designated "biological programming" and populate themselves as brand new spinal disc tissues. After a couple of weeks, this process completes itself and the patient is the proud owner of a newly-repaired spine.

This imagined reality is not so far off. In fact, it has already come to pass for over 100 of Dr. Bonasser's rat patients. Dr. Bonasser, incidentally, admits that this is surely both the most advanced and expensive operation to have ever been performed on a rat. And once those spinal discs have been regenerated, the rats have lived out the rest of their (admittedly short) natural lives with full mobility.

In more extreme cases of spinal degeneration, Dr. Bonasser's lab is also capable of creating entirely new spinal discs, printed to the individual needs of each patient. The surgery to replace a disc is a bit more invasive than the one to repair it, but both options are vastly superior to the previous option of fusing a patient's spine.

While hearing about medical breakthroughs like this is a wonderful thing, for the 30 million Americans suffering from Degenerative Disc Disease, the real breakthrough will be when we begin seeing this sort of operation performed on human subjects. We will have to wait and see how long it takes for that to come to pass, but Dr. Bonasser also reports that there is little likelihood of issues arising with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatments of this kind (after all, the FDA did approve of 3D printing skull caps for people). So there's hope for his spinal surgeries showing up in hospitals sooner rather than later. We've got fingers sure are crossed.

(Images: Cornell University)

For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
at @dvice or find us on Facebook