In about a dozen major university and corporate laboratories, biomedical engineers are working on ways to print living human tissue, in the hope of one day producing personalized body parts and implants on demand. Still far from clinical use, these tissue-engineering experiments represent the next step in a process known as computerized adaptive manufacturing, in which industrial designers turn out custom prototypes and finished parts using inexpensive 3-D computer printers.
Instead of extruding plastic, metal or ceramics, these medical printers squirt an ink of living cells. Researchers call it by the shorthand bioprinting.
The machines can build up tissue structures, layer by layer, into all sorts of 3-D shapes, such as tubes suitable for blood vessels, contoured cartilage for joints, or patches of skin and muscle for living Band-Aids, recent laboratory studies have demonstrated.
“You can print a tissue dot by dot,” says bioengineer Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic at Columbia University’s Laboratory for Stem Cell and Tissue Engineering. “Bioprinting is a very clever technology which actually brought a completely new use to something very old that we all have at home, which is the inkjet printer.”
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