Biofabrication, a recently created word, is so new and so promising in the medical world that no-one has really worked out where, and if, there is a limit to the upper reaches of this process.
Already, the convergence between technology and medicine has helped repair nerves — once thought to be an unreachable goal.
The process of printing in different materials to create parts to repair human bodies gives a legitimate use to the old cliche that this is technology limited only by the the limits of imagination.
The technology has gone from a novelty item, printing out cute toy dragons, to a serious engineering tool, creating bespoke parts to assemble, for example, a jet engine.
And it’s not just printing in metal, such as when recently in Australia scientists created new ribs for a man with cancer, it’s body tissue itself which can be re-crafted to create new parts.
3D printing is a great marriage to the field of regenerative medicine where damaged tissues or organs are repaired through stem cell therapy.
Stem cells, which have the potential to self-renew, can now be loaded into a printer and spat out in new shapes, including three-dimensional tissues and structures.
Last year, in a process using stem cells, Polish firefighter Darek Fidyka became the first person to recover sensory and motor function after the complete severing of his spinal cord.
And this month, a team of scientists announced a 3D-printed guide which helps regrow complex nerves after injury. The study, in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, showed how researchers used a combination of 3D imaging and 3D printing to create a silicone guide implanted with biochemical cues to help nerve regeneration.
Already titanium hip joints are being printed, made to order for individuals, a precise fit, better and more durable than the original.
The next step will be replacement of external parts such as ears, using live tissue as the ink in the 3D printer, building healthy new parts layer by layer.
And perhaps one day, organs will be built, although at the moment the complexity of such as task makes this something for the distant future.
Here’s how, according to the journal Biofabrication, scientists use living cells as printer ink.
With the art of biofabriction being so new, there are no formal qualifications for working in the field. Those who create via the 3D printer come from a range of background and tend to collaborate a lot across disciplines including engineer, biology, materials science and medicine.
However, the first four students in the world’s first masters degree in biofabrication started in June in Australia.
Two Australian universities — Queensland University of Technology and the University of Wollongong — and two of the world’s leading research universities in the 3D printing of replacement body parts — the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands and the University of Würzburg in Germany — are working together on the degree.
The universities has established a record in key areas of biofabrication, including polymer chemistry, cell biology and clinical implants. The universities will eventually each have 10 students.
Professor Gordon Wallace at the University of Wollongong says the first four students are getting a lot of short course work to bring them up to speed with advances in 3D printing. That includes looking at the ethical, safety and regulatory issues.
“Anyone coming into this, there’s no-way they will come with all the skills but they obviously have a proven ability to learn and a proven ability to work with other people,” he says.
Demand for places in the course was very high. The students were carefully selected and not just for their technical capabilities.
“There’s a real knack in being able to work across disciplines,” Wallace says. “Communication skills are very important, not just being able to work across difference science and engineering disciplines but also being able to communicate very effectively with the clinicians, around understanding the clinical problem and being able to deliver a solution.
The students have to acquire skills in chemistry, biology, materials and engineering.
“No-one is going to have all of the skills for every challenge,” Wallace says. “It’s important for us to instill these skills based on communication but with the ability to find other skills and integrate those skills into a particular project very quickly and efficiently.”
They are about to get started on research with each being assigned a clinician, a medical expert, as a mentor. Topics include cartilage regeneration, building systems for improved wound healing and controlled implants.
“It’s starting to unfold pretty well and the next batch of students starts next February,” Wallace says. “And our other partners are also starting students.”
In total the whole group across Australia and Europe will 40 students by March next year. Half are based in Europe but will be here for a year and those in Australia will be in Europe for 12 months.
Some of the experiments would have been impossible just a few years ago. This includes cartilage regeneration, wound healing and nerve/muscle regeneration.
“This ability to 3D print living cells, white stem cells, is enabling a range of very fundamental biological studies to be done,” Wallace says.
It also means the commercially available 3D printers soon get overtaken.
“We have acquired what’s available commercially in terms of metal polymer and biomaterial printing but they are still fairly limited in the range of materials and cells that they can accommodate,” he says.
“So we continue to develop our own printers in parallel.”
The process also need a fair amount of computing power. This includes for medical imaging to provide the information about the defects which need trying to be repaired.
“While we have state of the art printers in our own laboratories, quite powerful and complex to run, when to comes down to providing a clinical solution I think there are going to be very simple, dedicated 3D printers that are customised for a particular application,” he says.
“For example, we’ve been developing a bio-pen for our orthopedic surgeon for cartilage regeneration because his preference is to print direct into the defect using a hand held 3D printer. It really makes sense to have dedicate printer for dedicated medical applications.”