We’ve so far covered the fundamentals of 3-D printing, along with a few key individuals and businesses leading this next industrial revolution. The result could revitalize manufacturing in the U.S., if not the world — a trend that would generate a real economic boom.
But let’s take the implications of this technology a step further…
As you know, 2-D printing with ink on paper is being one-upped by 3-D printing with plastics and metals to create objects. But it doesn’t end there. It’s one thing to print inanimate objects. That is, objects where the machine assembling them does all the work… whether it’s heating up or hardening materials in order to construct whatever your computer aided design (CAD) says.
But it’s quite another thing to print with self-assembling materials. Materials that aren’t just being moved around by the printer, but actually “help” the machine make the product.
Chris Anderson, in his book Makers, explains the concept of “intelligent materials” with the example of Lego blocks:
“When a child plays with Lego, the blocks correct the child’s mistakes–they fit together only if they’re lined up right. The larger Duplo blocks guide the child to the correct orientation with beveled edges that exert a force to rotate the parts in the right direction to fit when they’re pushed together. The blocks themselves provide a coordinate system–the Lego grid. And when you’re done with the blocks, you don’t throw them away. You disassemble them and use them to build something else, making them the ultimate recyclable material.”
So how can a 3-D printer’s “ink” be intelligent?
I’ll give you a hint: it won’t lay down Legos.
But the concept of materials that are inclined to rely on preconceived components is the same…
A 3-D printer’s “ink” can be intelligent in the same way that cells in your body are intelligent.
In other words, 3-D printing’s natural next step will be based on biology, the original factory. It will use “ink” that follows instructions from your DNA, the very building blocks of life.
The next step in the 3-D printing revolution is the introduction of bioprinters into labs.
Bioprinters can print layers of living cells in order to create human or other animal tissues. And, in time, even entire organs. The printers build the relevant cells in a certain pattern, a framework, enough so that — amazingly — nature can fill in the rest of the work and complete the job.
Dissolvable gel keeps the cells from dying, which usually isn’t a problem when it happens naturally in a human blood network. The process uses “bioink spheroids” and “biopaper gel.”
Incredibly, cells within the bioink spheroid actually rearrange themselves after printing, “correcting” their positions and then turning into tissue.
How they effortlessly do this is all in the memory of their DNA.
Professor Makoto Nakamura at the University of Toyama was one of the first people in the world to use inkjet technology with real living cells to build a 3-D structure. He hopes to print a heart.
The idea first occurred to him in 2002 when he realized that droplets of ink from a standard ink jet printer are about the same size as human cells… one-hundredth of a millimeter.
He had bought a regular old Seiko Epson printer, loaded it with cells and… clogged the nozzle.
He could have called it quits, and written it off as a crazy idea. But instead, he called the operator at customer service and explained that he wanted to print human cells, an idea she politely shut down. Eventually, he reached an official who showed an interest and gave him technical support.
A year later, his experiments confirmed that cells could survive after the printing process if they were put in what we’ve affectionately been referring to as “biopaper gel.” So he became one of the first researchers in the world to print a 3-D structure with real living cells using inkjet technology.
His motivation is simple: His background as a pediatrician put him face to face treating children with heart problems. In a discussion he had with a journalist from iAfrica.com, he said:
“I just had to watch them die. Clinical doctors can’t give them treatment that isn’t in textbooks. I clung to the hope that medicine will make progress and save more lives in the future.
“I’m not envisioning making superhuman cyborgs. There are simply lives that could be saved if there are organs,” he said.
Nakamura’s represents only one person with the desire to make organs readily available for transplants, but it’s an ambition shared by many. According to the National Network of Organ Donors:
“More than 111,000 people are currently on the UNOS’ transplant waiting list…the number of people who die waiting for a transplant continues to grow: from 10 people each day in 1990, to 14 a day in 1996, to 19 today. That number will be even higher by 2020…”
That’s just in the United States.
When this new technology comes to fruition, there may not even be a need to ask for organ donations. It will most likely be one of the many future technologies that converge in what our in-house expert calls “the Phoenix Event.” Induced pluripotent stem cells, for example, can be used as the raw materials for this kind of technology. Using the DNA from your own stem cells limits any chance of immune system rejection. And all this can happen without the potentially controversial use of embryonic stem cells.
Organovo (PINK: ONVO) already has proprietary technology that boasts itself as the world’s first commercial 3-D bioprinter.
In the words of CEO Keith Murphy, “Scientists and engineers can use the 3-D bioprinters to enable placing cells of almost any type into a desired pattern in 3-D.” He continues, “Ultimately, the idea would be for surgeons to have tissue on demand for various uses, and the best way to do that is get a number of bioprinters into the hands of researchers…”
Think of the demand from well-endowed medical schools and hospitals.
In December 2010, Organovo successfully created the first bioprinted blood vessels from a single person, and they plan to go through with human trials of bioprinted tissues by 2015.
They also anticipate their first artificial human organ will be a kidney, which is the most straightforward part in your body. In time, any organ might be bioprinted.
But Organovo is just one exciting company harnessing the power of breakthrough technologies.
Stay tuned for more!
Managing Editor, Tomorrow in Review
Josh Grasmick is managing editor of Tomorrow in Review and associate editor of Technology Profits Confidential and Breakthrough Technology Alert. After graduating from Washington College with a degree in English, the self-described autodidact was interviewed by Time magazine for his novel entrepreneurship and worldwide eco-adventures. His experience with those in the fields of science, medicine and technology puts readers ahead of the curve and on top of the market.
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