3D printed body parts?

I was reading about this topic recently, and wanted to share it with you because it intrigued me, particularly since I already use 3D breast scans before breast augmentation procedures to help patients decide on the final look of their breasts.

With the advent of the 3D printer and international research into the biofabrication of human body parts, Australia will next month have it’s first biofabrication lab unit. Sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it is very much reality.

According to Gordon Wallace, Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, biomaterials fabrication is a “combination of nanomaterials science, high-speed data communications and additive manufacturing”, could be able to use a patient’s own cells to create functioning replacement organs, made to fit. He believes this could happen as soon as 2025.

For plastic and cosmetic surgery, this technology could change the face of procedures such as breast reconstruction, where women have lost their breast to cancer.

Professor Dietmar Hutmacher from the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at Queensland University is already using computer aided design to produce moulds accurately modelled on a laser scan of a patient’s healthy breast. He modifies the model and can send it to a 3D printer, which is basically a printer you have also in your office – but instead of printing on paper it’s printing a three-dimensional object, for example a mould. The mould could be sterilised and brought into the operating theatre to help plastic surgeons perform a breast reconstruction. This could mean that the composition of the traditional surgical team would radically change in the future.

Currently, a plastic surgeon must be experienced to have the eye and feel for breast reconstruction and to perform successful microsurgery. Whereas surgeons must now use a large volume of tissue taken from a patient’s abdomen or thighs for instance, with this technology, Prof Hutmacher claims that only one cubic cm of tissue could be used to effectively grow the tissue to the size needed. A 3D printed breast mould would give surgeons effectively a template for breast reconstruction, one that accurately fits the patient. The idea is that the breast mould would bio-degrade as the patient’s own tissue completes its own remodelling process. The mould would be like a scaffold which would slowly degrade for up to 2 years afterwards, though finding the right materials is currently the challenge. For breast augmentation, Prof Hutmacher claims that the idea that after two to three years the entire breast tissue would be the patients’ own, would be the ideal solution to breast implants.

Research will continue in this area, but one thing is clear so far – biomaterials fabrication technology will definitely be taking the surgical realm onto a whole new level. For Star Trek fans, I end this post by saying…”It’s life Jim..but not as we know it”.