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3-D Printing: Beyond Skin Deep


Replacing body parts is already, in some ways, just a 3-D print away.


Anthony Atala, director of the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University, proved a few years back that he could successfully design an organ for a boy who had spinabifida. By using a desktop printer and replacing ink for the boy’s own stem cells, Atla transplanted a lab-grown gall bladder into the child’s body, which, today, is fully functioning with his kidneys. Amazing.

Taking advantage of the 3-D printing of biological material involves a cartridge of bio-ink — in this case, reprogrammed stem cells — and a bio-printer to compose the cells in a layered and precise manner. Once printed, these cells form particular tissue structures. Similar to human body tissue, these bio-prints must be constantly supplied with nutrients and oxygen.

To keep the bio-prints from dying, the researchers at Wake Forest replaced the specialized scaffolds with a blood substitute from the newly printed tissue structure. Since then, researchers have been attempting to develop tissue samples that do not require scaffolding or to find a biodegradable replacement.

3-D Printing: Non-Biological Material

Non-biological material enables doctors and medical students to practice complex surgeries by using life-sized models of 3-D printed tissue that feels like the real thing. Printed materials can replace bone and other essential body parts damaged by trauma or disfigurement.

A 3-D printed tracheal splint repaired a baby’s collapsed windpipe. In prosthetics, a company called e-NABLE, developed a lightweight plastic robotic hand for children who lacked motor skills due to a congenital disorder or injury.

3-D Bio-Printing: Organs and Tissue

Creating organs through 3-D printing (bio-printing) is an incredibly complex process. Many body tissues, for one, contain numerous specialized cells, some of which modify their characteristics in certain conditions and determine factors that influence how cells of a particular organ behave and interact with one another.

Mirroring these organ cells in a printed version proves a challenge. Researchers must also consider the arrangement of blood vessels — essential for organ survival – when printing replicas. The truth is, no biological CAD program can currently provide the blue- print of an organ — and its placement of cells — with ease.


Cosmetic companies like L’Oreal have joined forces with bio-engineering startup Organova to 3-D print human skin. Using donated skin from patients of various ethnicity and age, which have undergone plastic surgery, L’Oreal hopes to revolutionize its product testing protocols.

Printing skin offers a far better alternative than testing products on animals and a better glimpse of any potential ad- verse reactions. Although scientists have been able to manually grow skin grafts for trauma patients, the process is time consuming. Bio-printing is faster and more accurate. In addition to treating burn patients, the U.S.

Department of Defense is studying skin graft technol- ogy for defense applications. Another company, TeVido BioDevices, is recreating lost skin tissue for breast cancer patients; even reconstructing the nipple and areola using cells of the patient.


Drug development is incredibly costly. Bringing a drug to market equates to about $1.2 billion and a lengthy process of up to 12 years or more. Despite the long, arduous clinical trial phase, only 1 in 5,000 drugs reach market. Many pharmaceutical companies waste millions of dollars after their drugs fail at different clinical trial stages – some even in the final phase.

Bio-printing can provide alternative cost-cutting solutions that reduce development time by removing the preclinical stage of testing traditionally performed on laboratory animals. The solution rests in liver tissue that predetermines if the drug will cause toxicity; a drug is immediately removed from clinical trials if there is even a slight level of toxicity. Studying mechanisms and the liver’s response to a new drug can eliminate development costs throughout the clinical testing funnel.

Organovo, a 3-D organ printing company, has delivered a solution for effective and efficient clinical testing of drugs, among other applications. In collaboration with major pharmaceutical companies, Organovo has created human liver tissue for preclinical toxicology testing; the tissue lasts up to 40 days.

Although, this innovative replica of the human liver has yet to be fully functional in transplant procedures, the company is working to create sections of the dam- aged organ. Organovo has further plans to replicate cancerous human tissue, which could lead to the development of more effective and targeted oncology drugs.


Wake Forest University also successfully reprogrammed skin cells to serve the heart. The cells were stacked together and, with a 3-D printer, created to the desired shape and size. Although these few cells only measured 0.25 millimeters each in diameter, the procedure created an entire functional organ that could be used in clinical trials or to develop a better understanding of virus mechanisms and other pathologies.


Printing biological cartilage from a patient’s own bone can potentially replace crushed bone caused by trauma. When risk of rejection is minimized, the new implant can fuse with surrounding cartilage or grow, adapt, and eventually restore bone structure in younger patients.

Medical 3-D Printing in Israel

Objet 3D, a successful Israeli company that offers 3-D printing in dental and medical procedures, merged with American supergiant Stratasys, which creates prosthetics, particularly, for neuromuscular pediatric disorders including the development of a lightweight, durable exoskeleton for a young girl with arthrogryposis. The exoskeleton, aptly named “Magic Arms,” improved the movement of the joints in her arms.

When prosthetics break, only a picture is required to reprint a replacement part. This is of great significance in the field of prosthetics, in which wait times may include months for manufacture. A breakthrough medical device, the Syqe Inhaler for medical cannabis, could provide pain relief for patients suffering chronic disorders.

Medical cannabis has yet to be FDA approved. Although we are still far from creating completely functional organs to trans- plant, the results are tangible. We can potentially replace damaged sections of tissue and, thereby, prolong life.

What is clear is that this form of regenerative medicine holds great promise in medical research and drug discovery and, as a result can potentially improve the quality of life for patients with numerous conditions.

About the Author

Herliya Medical Center, a leading private hospital, invests in cutting-edge medical technologies for diagnostics, screening and treatment. Highly qualified specialists and attentive staff collaborate to deliver personalized, quality treatment to their patients. The hospital is the first choice for United Nations diplomats, embassies, and consulate staff.

At Herliya’s international medical tourism department, foreign patients are assigned a personal case manager to handle all aspects of their low-cost treatment. Following treatment, foreign patients recover in luxurious settings while enjoying the major tourism sites and attractions. The hospital offers the latest, effective treatments, most notably, in oncology, IVF, cardiology, neurology and orthopedics.

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