3-D Printing to Make Replacement Body Parts

Advances in three-dimensional (3D) printing have produced a swell of interest in artificial organs that are designed to replace, or even enhance, human tissues.

3-D printed organs

At the Inside 3D Printing conference in New York on April 15–17, 2015, researchers from academia and industry are gathering to discuss the growing interest in using three-dimensional (3D) printing to make replacement body parts. Although surgeons are already using 3D-printed metal and plastic implants to replace bones, researchers are looking ahead to printing organs using cells as “ink.”  All the structures shown here were all 3D printed at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and include a rudimentary proto-kidney (top left), complete with living cells.

Printed organs, such as a prototype outer ear that was developed by researchers at Princeton University in New Jersey and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, will be featured at the conference.  This ear is printed from a range of materials: a hydrogel to form an ear-shaped scaffold, cells that will grow to form cartilage, and silver nanoparticles to form an antenna (see M.S. Mannoor et al. Nano Lett. 13, 2634−2639; 2013. This is just one example of the increasing versatility of 3D printing.

This New York meeting, which is being advertised as the largest event in the industry, will provide exposure for a whole world of devices and novelties. But it will also feature serious discussions on the emerging market for printed body parts.

The dream of bioprinting is to print organs that can be used for transplant. For example, at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, researchers are developing a 3D-printed kidney. The project is in its early stages and the kidney is far from functional and some doubt that researchers will ever be able to print such a complex organ. Perhaps a more achievable near-term goal might be to print sheets of kidney tissue that could be grafted onto existing kidneys.

Printed replacement for skull

Printed structures made of hard metal or polymers are already on the market for people in need of an artificial hip, finger bone or facial reconstruction. This skull implant (grey) was made by Oxford Performance Materials of South Windsor, Connecticut, and was approved by US regulators in 2013. It is made of a polymer meant to encourage bone growth, to aid integration of the implant into the surrounding skeleton. The company also sells implants for facial reconstruction and for replacing small bones in the feet and hands.

3-D printed lung tree

One of the key advantages of using 3D printing for surgical implants is the opportunity to model the implant to fit the patient. This airway splint (shown on the right branch of the model trachea) was designed by researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to fit an infant with a damaged airway. The splint was made out of a material that is gradually absorbed by the body as the airway heals. The research team benefited from the concentration of 3D-printing expertise that has built up in Michigan because of the US automobile industry, which uses the technology for printing prototypes and design samples.

The business of 3-D printing also includes titanium replacement hip joints, which can be tailored to fit individual people, and made-to-order polymer bones to reconstruct damaged skulls and fingers. Printed body parts brought in US $537 million last year, up about 30% on the previous year, says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a business consultancy firm in Fort Collins, Colorado, that specializes in 3D printing.

3-D printed prosthetics

3D printing can also be used to generate cheap — and creative — prostheses.  A prosthetic hand can cost thousands of dollars, which is a burdensome expense when fitting it to a growing child.  Jon Schull founded a company called e-NABLE that provides free printed prosthetics to those in need, harnessing the efforts of hundreds of volunteers who own consumer-grade 3D printers. “When people get tired of printing Star Wars figurines, they give us a call,” he says.  The cost of materials for a printed prosthesis is about US $35.

3-D animal prosthesis

Also, 3-D printed prostheses are not just for humans.  For example, a duck named Buttercup was born with its left foot turned backwards.  The Feathered Angels Waterfowl Sanctuary in Arlington, Tennessee, arranged for the fowl to receive a new foot, complete with a bendable ankle.  Also in the an eagle, a box turtle and a handful of dogs also have been fitted with 3-D printed prostheses.

Scientists are looking ahead to radical emerging technologies that use live cells as ‘ink’, assembling them layer-by-layer into rudimentary tissues, says Jennifer Lewis, a bioengineer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bioprinting firm Organovo of San Diego, California, already sells such tissues to researchers aiming to test experimental drugs for toxicity to liver cells. The company’s next step will be to provide printed tissue patches to repair damaged livers in humans, says Organovo’s chief executive, Keith Murphy.

Lewis hesitates to say that 3D printing will ever yield whole organs to relieve the shortage of kidneys and livers available for transplant. “I would love for that to be true,” she says. “But these are highly complicated architectures.”


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).