3D printing was already impressive. I mean, this is technology that can take a computer file and turn it into a real life thing. Pretty much anything, too — sculptures, burritos, human fetuses, bicycles, bones, cars, kidneys, assault weapons. One big hang up, though, has always been time. Some of these objects take not just hours but days to print, and especially for the hopeful medical applications for biological materials like organs, this is precious time lost. But a new breakthrough by scientists at the University of California, San Diego could change all that.
Nanoengineering professor Stephen Chen and his colleagues have figured out a way to print biological materials like blood vessels in mere seconds. The new process is called Dynamic Optical Projection Stereolithography, or DOPsL, and it actually works a bit like 3D sculpting. Unlike previous techniques of printing blood vessels which required a sugar-based scaffold to be printed first and then covered in stem cells layer-by-layer, this new approach takes a solution of photo-sensitive biopolymers and cells that scientists zap with a laser. When the light hits the cells, they harden, and in a matter of seconds, a form emerges.
This breakthrough gets exciting when you imagine what would happen if you put these printers in hospitals. Theoretically, a heart attack patient could come into the emergency room with a blocked aortic valve, and rather than insert a stint or do a bypass, doctors could just print out a new aorta for the patient. Since the new blood vessel is made from his own cells, there wouldn’t be any need for immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection, and the patient’s heart would more or less be good as new.
Advances in 3D printing technology are happening at an alarming rate. It was less than ten years ago in 2003, when Wake Forest researchers first came up with the idea of engineering organs, and in 2009, the first commercial bioprinter hit the market. And who knows what will be next. If we can 3D print organs and bones, we can 3D print skin and muscle. Will we be able to 3D print complete human beings one day? Well at the very least, we’ll be able to print the most important parts.