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Printing organs cell‐by‐cell

3‐D printing is growing in popularity, but how should we regulate the application of this new technology to health care?
Howard Wolinsky

Author Affiliations

  • Howard Wolinsky, 1Freelance writer, Chicago, IL, USA

Welcome to the body shop, where machines are busy constructing new organs, one cell at a time. 3‐D bioprinters, cousins to the common inkjet printer, squirt cells into a scaffold, printing and nurturing an organ until it can be transplanted into a patient. 3‐D bioprinting might sound like science fiction, but the technology is already in the early stages of development and use. It builds on experience and advances made in bioengineering to enable the more efficient and cheaper production of tissues, organs, and body parts. However, if it goes mainstream, 3‐D bioprinting is likely to raise challenging legal and ethical issues, as well as to come up against regulatory hurdles.

3‐D bioprinters […] squirt cells into a scaffold, printing and nurturing an organ until it can be transplanted into a patient.

This new focus on the potential benefits and risks of 3‐D bioprinting comes as a result of the increasing attention being paid to the new technology in the press. Last year, for example, researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, USA, reported that they had printed and grown a replacement ear that could be used for reconstructive surgery on children born with malformed outer ears (http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2013/02/bioengineers-physicians-3-d-print-ears-look-act-real). In Ann Arbor, researchers at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital reported last year that in a medical first they had used a 3‐D printer to produce a splint to treat the trachea and bronchus of a child with tracheobronchomalacia, which causes deadly breathing problems (http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201305/baby's-life-saved-groundbreaking-3d-printed-device). These and other stories—both successful and tragic—are creating a high profile for bioprinting.

Bioprinting replacement parts for the human body expands upon techniques pioneered by bioengineers: growing new skin from a patient's own body to replace skin lost to severe burns, for instance, or creating tubular structures such as blood vessels, …

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