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OM in the News: 3-D Printing Moves to Human Organs

September 20, 2012

“Need an artery for bypass surgery or custom cartilage for that worn-out knee?”, asks The Wall Street Journal (Sept.18, 2012). Then just hit “print” on your 3-D printer.

In laboratories across the U.S., biomedical engineers are working on ways to print living human tissue, with the goal of producing personalized body parts and implants on demand. These tissue-engineering experiments represent the next step in a process known as computerized adaptive manufacturing, in which industrial designers turn out custom prototypes and finished parts using inexpensive 3-D computer printers.

Instead of extruding plastic, metal or ceramics, these medical printers squirt an ink of living cells– called shorthand bioprinting. The machines can build up tissue structures, layer by layer, into all sorts of 3-D shapes, such as tubes suitable for blood vessels, contoured cartilage for joints, or patches of skin and muscle for living Band-Aids.

At Cornell, researchers are printing heart valves, knee cartilage and bone implants. At Wake Forest, bioengineers are printing kidney cells and are working on a portable unit to print healing tissue directly into burns or wounds. At the University of Missouri, researchers have printed viable blood vessels and sheets of beating heart muscle. Biomedical engineers hope to print out tailored tissues suitable for surgery and entire organs that could be used in transplants, to eliminate long delays for patients awaiting suitable donor organs and the risk their bodies may reject the tissue.

Leading the way is Organovo Inc., which introduced the first commercial 3-D bioprinters in 2010, and has so far made 10 of its “NovoGen” bioprinters. “It allows us to print a tissue structure that is a functional, living, human tissue,” says Organovo’s CEO.

Discussion questions:

1. Relate these 3-D printers to those currently being used in industry (see Chapter 5).

2. How is this advancement an OM issue?

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