As often as printers are satirised as the bane of office work life, recent developments in 3D printing technology  may put them on the same level of importance as any other life-saving equipment. Even though 3D printers have been around since the 1980s, their accomplishments outside of commercial purposes have propelled them to the forefront of tech news. 

One of the first cases of 3D printing in medicine that made headlines was an artificial lung splint created by researchers at the University of Michigan. Kaiba Gionfriddo, who suffers from a rare condition called tracheobronchomalacia, had his windpipe collapse at only six weeks old, leaving him unable to breathe. Although untested, Kaiba’s parents gave the go-ahead to try 3D printing and their risk paid off. 

The 3D-printed splint, built out of polycaprolactone, was implanted around his airway to support it and will dissolve after three years once the windpipe has grown. 3D printing has also been used to create bone structure for bone cancer patients after the cancerous skeletal areas have been removed. Medical implants such as these are only the start of a new revolution in technology. 

The latest trend in 3D printing looks to be bioprinting, a new technology aimed at creating 3D tissues that mimic the form and function of native tissues found in our body by stacking layer after layer of live cells. Organovo, arguably the leader in these studies, has promised a functional human liver by the year’s end. Although the liver will not be available for transplants at this point, it will be able to hold up as a base for medical research such as drug testing. The end game for the industry however is to build functional human organs that can be transplanted into people who need them. 

What sounds like the plot to the sci-fi flick Repo Men (without the debt problem, we hope) may just soon be reality. Should technology be able to overcome the problems of the tissue’s survivability and its integration into the vascular system of the human body, 3D printing could well be the answer to a host of problems faced in healthcare. It is an exciting time ahead for the industry with more resources being allocated to further research. Hopefully, the future sees organ transplant lists shortening – a future that must be worked towards, what with an average of 18 people dying each day from the lack of available organs for transplant. 

(First published March 2014)

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