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5 body parts that can be 3D printed

3D printing has promised to let us make our own toys, gadgets and clothes for a while now, but it’s also a huge boon to healthcare. It lets scientists play Frankenstein and make new body parts to replace ageing or diseased ones. And we’re not just talking artificial limbs here (though some of those are pretty damned cool).

Scientists are making replacements for all kinds of body parts, from organs like the heart to the very skin that covers our bodies. Take a look at the future of healthcare.

5 body parts that can be 3D-printed:

1. A heart of foam


‘Cause she’ll never break this heart of foam

Artificial hearts are nothing new, but until now they’ve been made from hard materials – while they perform the same essential function as the real thing, they sit a little odd surrounded by the soft tissue that makes up the body’s other organs. Now researchers from Cornell University have made a new lightweight, stretchy material with the consistency of memory foam, and the first thing they did with it was make an artificial heart. What makes the material unique is that it can be formed and has connected pores that let liquid be pumped through it. In other words, it behaves just like a human heart.

The polymer foam starts life as a liquid that is poured into a 3D-printed mould of whatever shape you need. When made, it’s so stretchy it can change its length by up to 300 per cent.

While the foam heart isn’t ready to ship just yet, the team reckon it won’t be long before artificial body parts are made using the material. “We are currently pretty far along for making a prosthetic hand this way,” said Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and senior author of a paper in an upcoming issue of the journal Advanced Materials.

2. Sensitive skin


No, not an E.T. sequel, but science-fiction come to life

This could be the next step on from basic prosthetic limbs – a skin to cover them that can sense how hard it is being pressed and relay that information to the brain, letting the user feel it for themselves. Although not the first pressure sensor to communicate with the brain, it’s the most skin-like, and the research was published just last week in the journal Science.

It has two layers – on top is a sensing mechanism, while the bottom layer sends the electric signals to the brain. It’s made up of “waffled nanotubes”, a series of tiny structures that are pushed together when pressure is applied, allowing more electricity to be conducted. So far, it can only detect pressure, but the researchers at Stanford hope to have it differentiating between different materials and detecting temperature too.

3. Blood vessels


The artificial blood vessels (left) successfully combined with the natural cells (right).

Artificial organs aren’t much use unless you can transport blood to them. Last year, a team at Harvard made a major breakthrough: they developed a method for creating hollow channels that allow blood to flow through the organ, basically making them artificial blood vessels. Jennifer Lewis and her team used a custom-built four-head 3D printer and a “disappearing” ink (that liquefies as it cools) to make a patch of tissue containing skin cells and biological structural material interwoven with blood-vessel-like structures. Here’s how it works.

The tissue is made in layers. The first layer is a gelatin-based ink that acts as an extracellular matrix – i.e. the structural mix of proteins and other biological molecules that surrounds cells in the body. Two other inks contained the gelatin material and either mouse or human skin cells. Then came another ink – this has the consistency of Jell-O, but liquefies as it cools. Tracks of this were printed among the other inks. The researchers then chilled the patch of printed tissue and applied a light vacuum to remove the special ink, leaving behind empty channels within the structure. Cells that usually line blood vessels in the body can then be infused into the channels.

The smallest channels printed are still much bigger than the body’s capillaries, so it’s not an ample replacement just yet. The team hope that the 3D printing method will set the overall architecture of blood vessels within artificial tissue and that smaller blood vessels will develop along with the rest of the tissue.

4. Heart valves that grow on you

By printing 3D models of a patients’ hearts and valve, doctors can examine them in detail without having to cut them open. But Dr. Jonathan Butcher at Cornell University is taking it a step further and developing a 3D bioprinted heart valve. This valve is made from living tissue and can actually grow with the patient, meaning it won’t have to be replaced over time, obviating the need for expensive, risky and traumatic surgery.

5. The model liver


This functional artificial liver remains stable for 40 days worth of valuable medical tests.

Organovo’s exVive3D Liver is a bioprinted model of a human liver. While it’s not quite at the stage where it can be inserted into a person and serve the same function as their liver, it is invaluable for research purposes. Want to test the effectiveness and toxicity of medication before clinical trials, with no risk of injuring subjects? Organovo’s model is just the ticket. The model is fully functional as a liver, and remains stable for 40 days.

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