3D Printing New Body Parts

A quick look at the future of regenerative medicine.

November 26, 2012 (LocalOrg) - Ultimaker is a Dutch company producing affordable, open source 3D printers. The have close ties to local hackerspaces and eagerly promote collaboration and innovative, open uses of their product. Recently, they shared a story of a Dutch medical researcher, Ernst Jan Bos, who is using the Ultimaker 3D printer to create "scaffolding" upon which new human body parts may one day be grown. Using adult stem cells taken from a patients, new body parts can be grown and then grafted onto the patient.

Ernst Jan Bos (in Dutch) is experimenting with ears, with burn patients in particular in mind. In the video below, he can be seen explaining the process (in Dutch), which includes taking a 3D scan of an existing body part, transferring it to the Ultimaker for printing, then using it as the basis for creating molds for growing the ear.

Video: For non-Dutch speaking viewers, the images alone still tell an interesting story. The Wake Forest video below is in English, and explains a similar process.

While Ernst Jan Bos' idea may sound fantastical, in fact, it has already been done by large institutions. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) has been experimenting for years with the regeneration of body parts, organs, and tissue - and even uses printers for another purpose - literally printing organs with organic material, layer-by-layer, upon a temporary scaffolding just as Ernst Jan Bos has proposed.

Video: Dr. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine explains the groundbreaking work he has been involved with over the years. The promise of regenerative medicine will have profound implications, transforming beyond recognition our modern perception of healthcare. A longer talk can be watched here.

The limitations to the pace of progress placed upon Wake Forest are many fold. Skilled technicians, doctors, and researchers are scarce, so is funding and the necessary, specialized equipment needed to explore and clinically implement regenerative medicine. This is why Ernst Jan Bos' proposal is important - the augmenting of large institutions like Wake Forest, with a more widely distributed network of researchers drawing from an increasingly expanding "maker" community. Not only will more people receive the opportunity to get involved directly in medical research, but the multidisciplinary nature of hackerspaces and the maker community may yield solutions larger institutions may not have the time or manpower to consider and explore.

As progress is made, and the work of large institutions is increasingly augmented by decentralized interdisciplinary working groups, we can imagine a future where community labs part-taking in the DIYbio movement might someday give way to community regenerative medicine and gene therapy clinics - not merely diagnosing and treating illness and injury, but curing illness and even replacing damaged or worn out body parts.

Of course revolutions like this are only possible with an active, engaged, organized, and educated population - not just the raising of capital for research, spaces, and equipment, but the raising of human capital necessary to carry out research and implement breakthroughs in a pragmatic and meaningful way.