Printers that create artificial limbs, cheap drugs and replacement organs could radically change medicine in poorer countries. But can this technology deliver?
The opportunity to do so stems from a bright idea that engineers Hod Lipson and Evan Malone at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York came up with in 2006. Their Fab@Home project aimed to bring cheap 3D printers, and the open source software to run them, to the masses. With these tools in hand and the right inks, anyone, anywhere can print their own plastic toys, gadgets, food in their suburban garage, or in a school in a remote Indian village.
Lipson is convinced that by democratising manufacturing and invention, 3D printing will change the world. “It’s nothing short of an industrial revolution,” he says. And the Fab@home kit isn’t the only option. Other open-source projects include RepRap, a 3D printer that is designed to be able to print replicas of itself, invented by Adrian Bowyer at Bath University, UK.
The immediate fruits of this personal manufacturing revolution will come from simple problem solving, like replacement glasses. But the world of medicine offers far more intriguing opportunities, and for many in the developing world it will provide a vital lifeline in villages and towns where there currently is none.
For instance, it’s not in the realm of fantasy to imagine printing replacement organs by squirting living cells rather than drops of ink. Organs could be created for transplant patients without any fear of an immune reaction, or new heart valves for transplanting directly into a patient on the surgeon’s table. These technologies are being developed already, albeit with extremely sophisticated printers. Simpler organs like skin, windpipes or blood vessels, will be the easiest to create, more difficult will be hollow sac-like organs, like the bladder or stomach, and hardest of all will be solid organs like the kidneys, heart and liver.
But there have been some notable achievements. Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina printed a kidney, though a non-functioning one, on stage at a TED conference last year. Biologist Jonathan Butcher, Lipson’s colleague at Cornell, has already 3D-printed a working heart valve out of biological polymers. 3D printing allows complicated structures to be built easily, says Butcher. A heart valve has areas that need to be stiff and strong, other areas that need to be flexible, and a host of interconnecting, moving parts. Building a system as intricate as that using a mould instead would be mind-numbingly difficult Butcher suggests. “Anytime a tissue is anatomically complex… 3D printing will make a major impact,” says Butcher.