Over recent weeks, we’ve seen some novel advances in 3D printing. Now it seems that doctors may soon be using a 3D printer to save lives.
We all know why it is so important to carry organ donor cards. There is a chronic shortage of organs available to transplant into people who will die without receiving a new organ. Doctors have tried to find a way to ease the shortage by producing artificial organs in the laboratory.
However, it is not as simple as it seems. The biggest obstacle to being able to produce organs in a laboratory has been that scientists have so far been unable to find a way to supply the artificial tissue with nutrients, which arrive by way of capillary vessels. These capillary vessels are so small and intricate that until now, doctors have been unable to successfully replicate them.
The solution may well be in the hands of the printing industry. The BBC has reported that artificial blood vessels created on a 3D printer may be the answer. A team of scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany think they may have solved the problem by devising a technique called “multiphoton polymerisation” which uses a 3D printer to artificially create the necessary blood vessels. Their revolutionary medical breakthrough will be unveiled this month at the Biotechnica Fair in Germany.
The organs inside our body, such as livers and kidneys, are fed all the nutrients they need by minute and extremely complex tubes called capillary vessels. For artificial organs to function properly, it is a necessity that they are equipped with these artificial blood vessels.
At the moment, the German biotech firm have to make these artificial blood vessels in complex stages. However, they hope they will soon be to combine these stages to create the capillary vessels in one go by way of the 3D printer.
Here is an explanation of the real scientific stuff behind 3D printing of blood vessels:
To print the blood vessels on a 3D printer, the scientists combine the 3D printing technology with a process which they have called “two-photon polymerisation.” This involves shining intense laser beams onto the material to stimulate the molecules. The laser beam stage transforms the material into a solid elastic substance. This permits the scientists to create precise and elastic structures that would work together with the natural tissue in a human body.
Once again, as we have seen with other 3D printer breakthroughs, the printers do not use normal ink cartridges. They use special “ink” made from biomolecules and synthetic polymers. The 3D printed blood vessels are finally coated with modified biomolecules to ensure that the laboratory created organ accepts them.
The head of the BioRap project at Fraunhofer Institute, Dr Gunter Tovar, said “The individual techniques are already functioning and they are presently working in the test phase; the prototype for the combined system is being built. The vascular systems illustrate very dramatically what opportunities this 3D printing technology has to offer.”
At any one time, there are around 10,000 people in the UK alone on the organ transplant waiting list. Of these, 1,000 will die to a combination of the lack of suitable organs and too few organ donors. This new 3D printer technology may one day put an end to people dying unnecessarily while awaiting a new organ. Who would have believed that the technology behind printing office reports and printing photographs at home would one day save lives?
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