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Print your own body parts

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Go back 15 years or so, and laser printers were seen as something that only the well-to-do could own. Even a black and white one would have set you back a pretty penny, whereas nowadays you can pick one up in Argos for less than £50.

Let’s face it, a printer that can put images on a piece of paper is hardly impressive any more. Not when you consider the vast advances in 3D printing technology.

Earlier this year I heard about an entire house built in just 24 hours using a 3D printer, and I’m not talking about a Wendy house. This was a house with concrete walls, partitions, windows and doors. It costs $10,134 to build and can last 175 years. Just imagine what kind of possibilities that could offer to the developing world, and to people whose homes have been wiped out by war and natural disasters.

I watched the video again and again in amazement that something like this could actually be possible. But even this is nothing compared to what is happening in the world of bioprinting, where human body parts are soon to be on the menu.

The cosmetics giant currently grows skin samples from donated tissue in order to test its cosmetics

Back in 2015, L’Oreal partnered up with bio-engineering start-up Organovo (who have created this useful infographic on the evolution of bioprinting) to attempt to print human skin. The cosmetics giant currently grows skin samples from donated tissues in order to test its cosmetics, but is keen to uncover the possibilities that printing real human skin could bring.

Meanwhile, a team at Swansea University is using bioprinting technology to create tissues and bones that may eventually be used in reconstructive surgery.

But what if we could print human organs that could work just as well as their real counterparts? Wouldn’t that be the holy grail of the 3D print industry?

Indeed, and it’s widely believed that a heart would be the easiest to replicate due to the fact that it doesn’t perform any complicated biochemistry. The biggest hurdle is in printing blood vessels though, including tiny capillaries that are nigh-on impossible. In fact, manufacturing a functional vascular system has proven so difficult that NASA has offered half a million dollars to the first research team to do it.

However, a pioneering team at Harvard has already managed to print thick tissues containing blood vessels, which could have great significance for the future of artificial tissues and organs. And, in 2016 the same team printed the world’s first heart-on-a-chip, which is a micro-physiological system that mimics the behaviour of human tissue. Further development of this method could eventually decrease the reliance on animals to test new drugs, and hopefully in time eliminate it completely.

Estimates as to how soon we’ll actually be able to bioprint organs vary enormously. And once it’s achieved, then begins the lengthy process of approving them as safe to use for transplants. It may not happen in the next few years, but it should certainly happen in our lifetime. And who knows, one day a printed organ could be what gives us a few more years on this earth.