The In-valid You/th project and interesting issues to think about: 3D printing and medicine

Post by Tirion Seymour

The In-valid You/th Project is part of a wider project called ‘Animal, Mechanical and Me: the Search for Replaceable Hearts’, which looks at the different ways that we might repair or replace parts of the human body: https://animalmechanicalandme.com/. The young people involved in making the film for In-valid You/th will be thinking about this topic and the experiences of people who live with mechanical, donated or artificial body parts or limbs.

The last few years have seen many scientific advances when it comes to the ability to make therapeutic interventions that are tailored to individual patients. One of the areas of technology that is getting lots of media attention with relation to medical uses is the area of 3D printing. This involves using machines that often look like advanced versions of ‘2D’ printers that are currently used to print words onto paper.

In 3D printing, a computer moves a printer arm in a precise way to build a model layer by layer following a specific design made on computer modelling software. For many objects that can be ‘3D printed’, the material being used in the place of ‘ink’ is often a form of plastic which hardens as it is layered. In non-medical areas, 3D printing has been used to create everything from toys, to food, to houses. The video below features some very interesting examples of 3d printed objects:

In the medical world, there are already many areas in which 3D printing using plastics and similar materials is already having an impact. One area has been in the development of usable prosthetic hands using this technology. A company called Enabling the Future has built a community of volunteers across the world interested in helping develop these tailor-made prosthetic hands for people in need of them, at a fraction of previous costs: http://enablingthefuture.org/about/.

Other uses of 3d printing for medicine have included the first skull transplant using a 3d printed skull: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/26/3d-printed-skull-transplant-utrecht-_n_5036665.html. 3D printed objects have also helped the medical process in other ways, such as through the printing of detailed 3D models of parts of the body for educational purposes http://3dprint.nih.gov/about/medicine.

While the printing of plastic or synthetic medical devices is one application for this 3D printing technology, there is also research underway about the feasibility of printing biological human tissues such as cells and even the fabrication of whole printed organs. A BBC article published in just February of this year talked about the first 3D ‘printing’ of body parts in a lab in the USA: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-35581454 Scientists have so far had success in growing these tissues in the lab, but are not yet at the stage of implanting these living tissues into a person. Researchers across the globe are exploring how we might get closer to this goal of producing tissue and organs usable for transplant. Scientists Dr Shu and Dr Faulkner-Jones here in Edinburgh at Heriot Watt University have themselves been hailed as ‘bioprinting pioneers’. They have had success in developing human organ bioprinting techniques using special gels made of synthetic DNA: http://www.scotsman.com/news/3d-printing-of-organs-for-transplant-step-closer-1-3686872. The social scientists Dr Gill Haddow and Dr Niki Vermeulen, along with myself, are working with them to understand the development and implications of this emerging technology.

Much of the research discussed above might seem closer to sci-fi ideas to some, but is already being developed in labs around the world. This will give the In-valid Youth team lots to think about when considering the different types of implants or prosthetics from a range of sources. Will we get to a stage where we can ‘mould’ our own mechanical or plastic limbs or organs? How would we want these to look if we could? If we could ‘grow’ what we needed out of human tissue, what would this be like for patients? In future weeks we will be exploring many issues around these kind of questions.

We will be returning to the topic of 3D printing and bioprinting in this blog in future weeks. In the meantime, if you want to listen to more on this topic, BBC Radio 4 last year produced a short radio documentary on ‘bioprinting’, accessible at the following link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05pn3t4

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