By C.J. Bunce

From Transformers to soft tissue… can we connect the dots?

Remember not long ago if you wanted a home printer the then-big thing was the dot matrix printer, which printed dot letters on printer paper where you needed to then tear off the edges used to feed the paper from a roll?  It wasn’t long until we all used desktop inkjet printers–what many of us still use today, and then good ol’ laser printers.  But go back for a second and take a look at that inkjet printer.  The future of medicine is in its design.

Last June we reported on Maker Faire, a unique group of people all across the country that get together each year in different cities to discuss and share creative pursuits of any imaginable variety.  Maker Faires last year featured makers of art using paint, wood, ceramics, makers of science using computers and elaborate machines, car builders, fashion and costume makers, chefs, flower arrangers, electrical engineers, writers–designers of every kind set up displays and performances showcasing the past, present and future of technology and ideas.  It was and–at Maker Faires coming soon to a city near you–will be it’s own petri dish and melting pot, fertile turf to merge technologies to solve problems and think bigger.

The 3D printer at Maker Faire

I was amazed at a display at the Kansas City Maker Faire showcasing the printing of 3D models using printers.  These 3D printers not only printed objects that could be used in and of themselves–like components for fasteners in washing machines or circuit boards–they also printed the very components of the printer itself, more efficiently and quickly than something like injection molding.  Yes, you can build–and buy at the Faire for a few hundred dollars–a 3D ceramics printer that would use instructions from your computer to take plastic thread and melt it into various components that could be assembled for you to make more printers and sell them if you want.  Which came first, the chicken or the egg, or the 3D printer or the 3D printer?  At the time I was thinking about ways to make TV and movie props from CAD designs.  I wasn’t thinking big enough apparently.

In fact, between last June and last Fall I caught a re-run on the Science Channel of an episode of TV series Science at the Movies hosted by Nar Williams.  Williams introduced us to Fxperts, Inc., a prop house for Hollywood flicks building a larger than life Bumblebee Transformer for one of the Transformers movies, beginning with converting digital designs to three dimensions via printing technologies.   So Hollywood was already using this technology on a big scale, at least for some cutting edge (aka expensive) projects like this big budget summer blockbuster.

From drawing…

… to three dimensions.

But how can static 3D printed creations help human science?  You can print any static three dimensional project with even bigger and better printers.  But what about non-static objects?

Thursday, reader Susan Fourtané, a writer and journalist writing at EnterpriseEfficiency.com, made the connection between recent innovations in 3D printing in orthopedic research and the cyborg Six Million Dollar Man in her article “3D Printed Body Parts.”  In her article shes cites some incredible innovations, including the European Medical Device Technology (EMDT.co.uk) online magazine’s report on “Innovations in Rapid Prototyping and Additive Manufacturing” in its January 26, 2012 online issue and Orthotec.com’s February 7, 2012 report “First in Innovation: Designer Implant Replaces Patient’s Lower Jaw.”

The EMDT article discusses the rapid creation and deployment of technologies that can quicken research by creating 3D prototypes to beta test procedures, such as a mock surgery before an actual surgery using a fully mapped 3D replica of the area of the patient needing the procedure.  Using “additive engineering”–basically advanced printing methods of what the folks at Maker Faire were demonstrating last year–a  company is using 3D printing for “tissue engineering.”  The German company, envisionTEC GmbH, has developed a machine that can print soft tissues, the 3-D Bioplotter.  As quoted by EMDT, “The 3D-Bioplotter can process high-temperature polymer melts and ceramic materials for bone regeneration, as well as silicones for surgical restoration and finally very soft hydrogels for soft tissue regeneration, as well as organ printing,” said envisionTEC GmbH Dipl. Chemist Carlos Carvalho.

A printer used to print a biological heart.

The Orthotec.com article refers to a real-world successful implant last June of a 3D printed titanium lower jawbone, which completely replaced a bone damaged by infection in an adult woman. That woman could speak again and use the jaw within hours of the operation.  The implant was created under the direction of Jules Poukens, MD, a craniomaxillofacial surgeon at University Hospital Maastricht in the Netherlands, and a team of researchers and surgeons from Belgium and the Netherlands.

There is at least one surgeon taking the next step, from not just creating different bone types for replacement in the body (which is cool by itself), but to growing biological material, and not just growing it–he already created a bladder and other tissues from cell material–he now focuses on growing and regenerating tissues and organs.  It’s the stuff of Dr. Frankenstein and political and ethical debates across the globe.  That surgeon is Dr. Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.  His team engineered the first lab-grown organ to be implanted into a human–that bladder I mentioned above–and is working on experimental fabrication technology to print human tissue, on demand.  Dr. Atala has said his lab uses a desktop inkjet printer “but instead of using ink, we’re using cells.”

Do you want to know more?  Check out this video where Dr. Atala prints organs.  That’s right.  Prints organs.

Consider that 90% of people on organ donor wait lists need a kidney transplant.  Incredible stuff, and another step towards implementing borg technology in real life.

Thanks to Susan Fourtané for connecting the dots for us.