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Will the future be completely printable?

/ December 17, 2014

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Will the future be completely printable?

When 3D printing was first developed, it was a substantial contribution to the age of technology. Since then it has continued to progress at rapid rates, creating more and more technical products for the enhancement of mankind. The last big development in the use of 3D printing in the medical field was the printing of prosthetic limbs, bones and joints, and even more recently a replica of an infant`s heart for guiding purposes during surgery.

The latest in 3D printing is a new field known as bioprinting – reproducing living soft tissue from a digital model, essentially printing living cells. A bioprinting startup out of San Diego, Organovo, has gone public with a market capitalization already, while a few other startup companies including the U.S. military are in the midst of developing their own bioprinting methods. Canada appears to be in the game too with some early-stage bioprinting technologies starting to appear. According to Lux Research, a technology advisory firm, the bioprinting field is estimated to flourish over the next 10 years to a US$8.4 billion industry.

The ultimate goal for the bioprinters is to one day print fully functional organs, which Dr. Sam Wadsworth, a cell biologist in Vancouver and principal of Aspect Biosystems says is entirely plausible in the near future. Arianna McAllister and Lian Leng, two graduate students from the University of Toronto developed the PrintAlive Bioprinter, a bioprinter that products skin from a patient`s own cells. The hope is that PrintAlive will one day help burn victims by eliminating the need for painful skin grafts. The printer itself is also faster, smaller and cheaper than those currently be developed in the US.

Aspect Biosystems, much like PrintAlive has developed a bioprinter that `builds relatively complex organic structures out of a “hydrogel” embedded within cells taken from the body and grown in a cell culture` and are working currently to print lung airways. Fibrosis is a condition that kills 100,000 Americans each year, by working with a major pharmaceutical firm and printing the lung airways, the pharmaceutical firm can test the drugs for fighting fibrosis.

This also proves helpful by minimizing animal testing by allowing for human clinical trials, which ultimately create a greater confidence in the success of the drugs. Wadsworth foresees a positive change in the treatment for cancer patients whereby rather than trying a variety of medicines all at once, tumours can be printed from a biopsy and tested to see which drug will be most effective for the patient.

The business side to all of this is the bioprinter companies selling the printed tissues to pharmaceutical companies and later on down the road, clinics and hospitals as opposed to selling the actual printers.

Both Aspect and PrintAlive have their sights set on big changes for the bioprinting and medical industry, and with the recent strides in technological development it might just happen faster than anyone could have ever imagined.

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