Printing Body Parts

A 3D printer from MakerBot Industries

A 3D printer from MakerBot Industries. (Courtesy MakerBot) via

This is not a sequel to the dreadful 1991 horror flick, but rather the most recent advance in an industry that is innovating at a bewildering pace.

Not a month ago we posted on the incredible story of Emma Lavelle, born with a genetic condition that causes joints and muscles to stiffen and eventually be rendered useless, for whom an exoskeleton was created using 3D printing technology.

But printing real body parts? That’s the stuff of pure science fiction…right? Via The Takeaway:

Bonassar and some colleagues recently printed a real, human ear. And while you might expect to learn that they built a framework and then attached living cells to it, they were actually printing with real human cells. Cartilage lends itself to this sort of printing because its creators don’t have to worry as much about supplying the tissue with nutrients via blood — cartilage naturally depends less on a blood supply. Of course, it’s still alive.

Oh give us a break. The deeper we explore 3D printing and its potential, the more we find ourselves sitting around wondering whether we’ll be able to print this, that or the other thing. For ordinary household items and inanimate objects, the future is literally already here.

But, when we get to thinking about something organic or alive, the answer is “of course not!” How could you print food? How could you print a plant? How on earth can you print a body part?

NPR relates how scientists at Cornell did just that:

To make the ear, Bonassar and his colleagues scanned the ears of his twin daughters, who were 5 at the time. They used a 3-D printer to build a plastic mold based on the scan. Those printers, similar to a home inkjet, lately have also been adapted to experiment with making chocolateguns, and even kidneys.

They then injected a soup of collagen, living cartilage cells, and culture medium. The soup congeals “like Jell-O,” Bonassar tells Shots. “All this happens quickly. You inject the mold, and in 15 minutes you have an ear ready to go.”

Is there anything 3D printing won’t be able to print?

Larry Bonassar shows off an ear built out of living cartilage cells

Larry Bonassar shows off an ear that he and his colleagues at Cornell University built out of living cartilage cells with the help of a 3-D printer. via NPR

We’re gonna have to think about that for a while.

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Robyn Warner
Robyn Warner has been writing since she learned how to hold a pen. She wrote her first book of poems before the age of 10. Though creative writing is her preference, she is enjoying life in the technical blog world. Robyn’s goal in her 30s is to use her writing to inspire fellow cancer survivors and have a job that gives her the flexibility to live anywhere and never wear shoes.

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