3D printing and bioprinting technology

From 3D Printing To 3D Bioprinting: Creating Spare Horns, Car Parts, And Organs

The three dimensional world has come a long way since the first 3D movie when everybody looked forward to putting on the funny-looking red and blue glasses to see a shark swim so near you felt like you could touch it, or see a spear get thrown directly at your forehead. Now the glasses are black-rimmed and kind of stylish, and the dimension has moved from entertainment purposes to benefiting both human and animal lives, with the use of 3D printing and bioprinting.

Fake Parts

For years, the medical community has approached the precipice of ethical debate by dabbling in animal testing, stem cell research, and bio-manipulation of various sorts. Arguments on one hand say the research is necessary to advance medical knowledge and help enhance people’s lives. On the other side are arguments about ethics and playing God, what rights do we have, and how far should we go?

Tabling the ethical debate for now, there are some positive aspects to 3D printing abilities.

BMW has experimented with 3D printing since the nineties and is one of the few companies going where no one has gone before. Daimler (which owns the Mercedes-Benz brand), Volkswagen, and Audi are also using 3D printing for the benefit of their customers and their companies. By printing some plastic parts using a 3D printer, they are able to have any part in stock when they need it.

It lessens the need for excess warehouse space, especially for older parts, and eventually, if they can print the older parts via new 3D technology, the older, larger, more expensive machines it took to manufacture those parts can be dismantled.

Additionally, the parts wouldn’t need to be shipped across the world. They could just send “a digital blueprint of a component to a printer which creates parts by using lasers to melt powders into plastic, glass, metals and even ceramics.” For this process, they use high-tech Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) commercial-grade 3D printers.

This same concept applies to human organs.

Fake Body Parts

Medical researchers for years “have been reproducing human cells in laboratories by hand to create blood vessels, urine tubes, skin tissue and other living body parts,” CNN reported. But actual organs were more difficult to create. However, with the use of 3D printing, their precision is such that lifelike organs can be created.

However again, the challenge is not the creating of the organ but the material used to print it. Since it is biological in nature, thus the term “bioprinting”, it requires living cell tissue. Never fear, medical science has figured out how to handle that, as well. Researchers have successfully harvested cells and grown them. One such example is a two-year-old girl from Illinois, born without a trachea, who received one created from her own stem cells in 2013. And since then, there are many similar transplants that have occurred all over the world.

One challenge is when good things are used for bad outcomes, such as the 3D printing of guns, knives, or other weapons. Owning a gun, in itself, is not illegal. Printing a gun and bullets out of a substance such as plastic so it cannot be detected on an airplane, to use such item as a weapon to harm others, is illegal.

But there are many other ways 3D printing is being used for positive benefits. As of last year, two companies, Pembient and Rhinoceros Horn LLC, have been attempting to curb the horrific rhino horn black market and poaching industry by creating lab-grown rhino horns using 3D printing.

They are even going one step further and using a “dash of rhino DNA” in the process. This way, when genetically tested, it appears to be real horn, but the lab-grown horns will not contain the natural contaminants that typically make it through the rhino’s body into the horn. Their hope is the demand for real horns will diminish when people realize they can get lab-grown horns that are almost identical, and are much less expensive to acquire.

It worked somewhat with cubic zirconia and other lab-grown gemstones, maybe it could work with rhino horns and eventually elephant tusks. One other technique being tried to conserve the rhino population in South Africa is infusing the horns of living rhinos “with a toxin and a dye to make them unappealing to poachers. The toxin is intended to sicken humans who consume the horns–symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and convulsions–while the dye spoils the horn’s ornamental value.” It sounds promising and this technique has been successful in reducing poaching on several private reserves where it’s been tried.

Some places even use it to print food!

Ethical debates surrounding these issues have and will abound, but the use of 3D printing and 3D bioprinting has so far proven to be very beneficial whether it is used to create rhino horns, ready made car parts, or even human organs. It may not be the final frontier, but it certainly is the next exciting one.

[Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]