Written by Kerry Wilson II

Modern medicine has made major advances in treatment for organ failure and organ related diseases, but an organ’s function is very complex and hard to duplicate. So although healthcare has taken progressive steps, those steps can only help so much before even more problems arise. Today, there is a new advancement that could revolutionize the face of medicine and better the quality of life for those affected by combining the innovation of mechanical engineering and bioengineering: 3D printing.

Researchers have developed techniques to produce artificial structures via printing to replace damaged or obsolete parts of the body, such as prosthetics and kidneys. The beginning of printing in medicine started with simple structures of the body: arteries, blood vessels, skin, muscles, etc. The process by which these parts are made involves taking the cells of the patient receiving the transplant, printing a biodegradable mold, then coating the mold in the duplicated cells, and last incubating the structure allowing the cells to develop around the mold and the which eventually “dissolves” and only the biological structure from the mold remains. Because these biological structures are completely developed out of the patients’ cells, there is no threat of rejection and virtually fully functional.

A major issue facing the healthcare community deals with patients on the transplant list having to wait a long time to receive an organ. For them to receive an organ one must become available through the death of someone else and there are still risks of the organs being rejected by the body. However, 3D printing offers a solution to this problem: printing the organs. A major successful story that provides light in the future of printing is the development of a functional kidney at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine by Dr. Anthony Atala in 2002. The produced kidney was given to Dr. Atala’s patient, Luke Massella, who suffered from complete kidney failure. Luke was destined to be on dialysis for the rest of his life until receiving the artificial kidney. Now, Luke has grown up to live a regular happy life ever since the procedure.

Researchers have aspirations of taking 3D printing a step further by creating different printers to complete different tasks. In development is a printer that will print directly onto the patient receiving treatment. The printer will first scan the effect area for topography of the wound then begin printing the layers of skin one by one onto the patient.

3D printing has even inspired another level of printing that would further advance medicine if developed: 4D printing. This type of printing printing differs from 3D printing as it incorporates the fourth dimension of time, proposed by Skylar Tibbits. In 4D printing, biological structures will be formed and functional when implemented but can adapt overtime. 4D offers a direction towards the printing of proteins in the brain to replace damaged ones, thus preserving cognitive function.

The future of medicine grows brighter every day with ongoing research lending itself to great discoveries. The growing success of 3D printing helps push medical developments further than they’ve come before.