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How 3D Printing is Advancing Regenerative Medicine

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What do dental implants, Invisalign, prosthetic limbs and internal organs all have in common? They can all be created for human use through the advancing technology of 3D printing.

From a prosthetic jaw made for an 83-year old woman to flesh-like ears made for children born with a congenital defect, 3D technology is taking regenerative medicine into a whole new ballpark - organ printing.

Organ printing is a fairly new phenomenon, and an exciting progression from the 3D printing of dental fixtures, Invisalign molds and even customizable prosthetic limbs. And these accomplishments are nothing to sneer at; Bespoke Innovations is one company making 3D printed, lifelike limbs that mirror the person's body structure, thereby bringing greater humanity to those who have undergone trauma. The Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton is another, fondly nicknamed "Magic Arms" by the two-year old Emma who was born with arthrogryposis but is now able to use both her arms thanks to the company's durable and flexible 3D printed arms - decorated with butterflies as a delightful flourish for the child. 3D printing opens up an exciting number of doors, including for those in need of tissue replacement.

Still in its early stages, organ printing, also called additive manufacturing or bioprinting, boasted its first commercial bioprinter in 2009, developed by the company Organovo. Organovo, based in San Diego, is leading the bioprinting industry with its development of "printed" skin, blood vessels and heart segments. Though fully replaceable organs are still a ways off, they say they expect to release organs like heart and kidneys to the public within a generation. This seems to be the consensus for a realistic timeline.

Another company, Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, is undergoing clinical trials to successfully implant organs like spinal cords, urine tubes and bladders into patients. The company is currently working on developing 30 different types of organs, including mini kidney protoypes, which are made by using live human cells and are able to perform basic kidney functions like eliminating a urine-like substance. Dr. Anthona Atala showcased the company's work at a 2011 TED Talk, during which he printed a real human-engineered kidney onstage for the audience by using 3D printing technology.

How is this possible? 3D printing for organs works by taking a sample of the person's cells, designing a digital model and then using a layering process to turn that image into a true-to-life man-made human organ. The "bio-ink" is made of living human tissue and is grafted layer by layer into a physical structure - all with the click of a mouse. And because the cells will be taken from the patient's own genetic make-up, there is little chance of a negative autoimmune response when placed in the body, as is common with traditional organ transplants.

Right now, eighteen people in the U.S. die every day while waiting for an organ transplant, but with emerging 3D technology that is now able to create real organs from human cells, the potential for saving lives is inspiring. Though it may still be 20 years from now when the technology can be fully implemented, the seeds have sprouted and research is rolling full steam ahead.

3D printing also has the potential to save money in the long run. It's been estimated that non-pharmaceutical medical technology will end up costing $100 billion in the next 5 years as developing methods work to get off the ground. This is one of the leading causes for rising health insurance costs. Indeed, NovoGen, the bioprinter used by Organovo, requires a few hundred thousand dollars to manufacture, but eventually, the benefits could outweigh the start-up cash as lives are saved and techniques are streamlined. As it stands now, traditional organ transplants are not cheap, costing anywhere from $100,000 to over $1 million.

Dr. Atala predicts that organ printing could potentially be cost-effective, since the digital imprint for the organ will already be in place, and the extra costs to customize the organ for the patient's specific cells and size would be minimal. Still, at this point, there's really no way to tell how much the procedure will end up denting the pocket, and most money currently directed at organ printing is going into research and development, which is not inexpensive. However, once a suitable organ printing process has been developed, the FDA will have to approve of its commercial use, and then we can start seeing this miraculous technology hit the market.

In the next couple of decades, the medical world will be watching 3D organ printing very closely for its potential to not only save thousands of dollars, but also thousands of lives.