The GOOD NEWSletter #12: 3D Printed Body Parts

The next episode of 3D printing will involve printing entirely new kinds of materials. Eventually, we will print complete products — circuits, motors, and batteries already included. At that point, all bets are off. ~Hod Lipson

Dear Friend,

Roboticist Hod Lipson from Columbia University quoted above, has worked on 3D printing of edible food but so far hasn’t printed human body parts — yet! Other scientists around the world are making amazing inroads in helping to fix our broken bodies.

In this issue, I relay some amazing feats in this area: replacing a patient’s deformed rib with a 3D printed one, restoring the function of a severed spinal cord, and printing a miniature heart with human cells!

Patient Receives 3D Printed Rib Implant in Breakthrough Procedure

You may be familiar with 3D printed plastic parts using your smartphone, or even 3D printed houses, but how about printing a personalized bone using biocompatible material?

[T]he patient’s rib cage was scanned and the 3D-printed rib created in less than 24 hours. This was customized to the exact requirements of the patient. It was considerably cheaper than a titanium implant, too — with the cost of the materials, labor, and machine time adding up to less than 100 euros … [$114 in Bulgaria].

Good News: 3D printed body parts including bones, and other tissues are being developed now at the University of Arizona and Penn State University.

Photo credit: Cameron


Bio-Printers Are Churning out Living Fixes to Broken Spines

3D printed custom plastic prosthetic limbs have been around for years. In this case, a 3D printed scaffold of biocompatible material is being used to allow living tissue to grow!

The scientists first printed out small implants made of softgel and filled them with neural stem cells…. The implants were then surgically placed inside a tiny gap in a rat’s spinal cord. Over time the new nerve cells and axons grew and formed new connections across the cut spinal cord of the animal. These nerve cells connected not only with one another but with the host spinal cord tissue and the circulatory systems of the patient …

Good News: Eventually, bio-printed tissue will be used to print entire organs that can be transplanted into the patient!

Credit: UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering


Scientists 3D Printed a Tiny Heart from Human Cells

3D printed blood vessels were described five years ago and printed human corneas are in development. Now, scientists at Tel Aviv University have printed a semi-functioning miniature heart!

The researchers then loaded these cells — serving as “bioinks” — into the printer, which had been programmed to print a heart, based on CT scans taken from the patient and an artist’s depiction of a heart. The printer took between 3 and 4 hours to print the small heart with basic blood vessels. The researchers then incubated the heart and fed it oxygen and nutrients. Within a couple of days, the cells began to spontaneously beat.

Good News: This proof of concept may lead to a 3D printed heart made from your own stems cells thereby eliminating the shortage of transplant organs!

Credit: Advanced Science


These advances in 3D printing are impressive especially considering that printers have been designed to print not just with plastic, concrete or hydrogels, but with “bio-ink” made from living cells. Maybe future cyborgs will be more organic than mechanical!

Optimistically yours,
Rod Murray