3D 'bioprinting' remakes skin today, body parts tomorrow

As DVICE readers already know, 3D printing technology can do some amazing things. Now, the medical community is looking to add another trick to that repertoire: printing skin and body parts.

Right now, the immediate application of bioprinting — a buzzword that's spawned from the increasing promise of 3D printing in the medical realm — is to quickly patch up wounds by "printing" new skin. This would be amazingly helpful for your average injury, of course, but could even mean whole new approaches to, say, the injuries of a severe burn victim.

James Yoo, a researcher at the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, is part of the push to bring 3D printers to medicine. He's looking at what it would take to not only treat a multitude of different injuries, but to do so with a portable unit.

"What's unique about this device is that it has a scanner system that can identify the extent and depth of the wound, because every wound is different," he said, adding, "That scan gets converted into 3D digital images; that determines how many layers of cells then need to be deposited to restore the normal configuration of the injured tissue."

That's easier said than done, however, and printing whole limbs or appendages may be just as "easy" as being able to print skin, in the end. That's because Yoo and his team and others have found that, to get it right, they have to take it in steps, according to Yoo:

"We and our colleagues have started with cartilage; it's amorphous, it doesn't have a lot of internal structure and vascularisation — that's the entry level point to start with. That has been fairly successful in animal models, and that would be the first thing you'll see used in practice. From there we'll climb the complexity of tissue, going to bone, or perhaps liver."

Still, Yoo is convinced its entirely feasible, and that 3D printers in medicine could be commonplace in 20 years. After that? Maybe we'll be printing whole bodies, Fifth Element-style.


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