Scientific advances in the medical field involving 3D printing have been coming fast and furious. A few weeks ago, doctors in Britain revealed that they used a 3D printer to create a prosthetic face for a cancer patient whose features had been ravaged by an aggressive tumor.
Now there is word of another breakthrough involving a team of researchers at Oxford University that used a custom-built programmable 3D printer to create materials with several of the properties of living tissues. The new type of material consists of thousands of connected water droplets, encapsulated within lipid films, which can perform some of the functions of the cells inside our bodies, according to the announcement on Oxford’s website.
These printed “droplet networks” could be the building blocks of a new kind of technology for delivering drugs to places where they are needed and potentially one day replacing or interfacing with damaged human tissues. Because droplet networks are entirely synthetic, have no genome and do not replicate, they avoid some of the problems associated with other approaches to creating artificial tissues – such as those that use stem cells.
“We aren’t trying to make materials that faithfully resemble tissues but rather structures that can carry out the functions of tissues,” says Oxford University Chemistry Professor Hagan Bayley.
The cells were almost five times larger than the average human cell, but the Oxford researchers believe they could be printed much smaller. These kinds of manufactured cells will eventually lead to significant advancements in medicinal applications and treatments.
It's still too early for researchers to speculate on how much 3D bioprinted tissues and organs will cost to produce or store, or how quickly those products can be produced once the need has been identified. However, Dr. Anthony J. Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine believes these kinds of developments could lead to lower healthcare costs.
Clearly, medical breakthroughs via 3D printing are on the verge of profoundly enhancing quality of life and prolonging lifespan. That the technology could potentially lead to more affordable healthcare would be a welcome bonus.