One of the most promising applications of 3D printing is the ability to manufacture custom fit functioning organs for patients in need. While there has been some progress in this direction over the years, it wasn’t until last week that this dream began to feel more like reality.
On Friday, Science Advances published research from a team of bioengineers at Carnegie Mellon University who developed a new bioprinting technique which was shown to be capable of printing coronary arteries using store bought printers that were modified and loaded with soft materials such as collagen and other tissue engineering gels.
It's an unprecedented breakthrough. Traditionally, 3D printing has made use of hard materials such as plastic or metal, which were ideal for a manufacturing process that works by depositing super thin layers of the material on top of one another. In the medical field this was great for rapid prototyping and creating prosthetics. But the Holy Grail of applied 3D printing, the bioprinting of patient specific organs, remained elusive.
This is largely because advances in this area would require softer materials, such as collagen and fibrin, common tissue engineering gels. While some minor advances were made in bioprinting soft materials, most structures continued to collapse under their own weight during the printing process. Even when researchers were successful in bioprinting soft materials, it came with a prohibitively expensive price tag: most bioprinters cost somewhere around $100,000, making the technology all but inaccessible to a handful of research institutions with the funds and knowhow to operate these state of the art machines.