Earlier this year, a group of researchers at Cornell University began to explore how 3D printing could be used to create replacement body parts, and said that it might be possible within 20 years. But the BioRap project may have beaten the projection by a good 19 years. Sort of.
11,000 people in Germany are waiting for organ transplants, according to the BioRap team at Germany's Fraunhofer research institute, so they decided to do something about it. Since tissue engineering is quite difficult at present, the research team looked at creating "biocompatible" artificial blood vessels using a 3D inkjet printer.
Creating the vessels is a two-step process: First, the team printed the vessels using special inks that can be bonded using UV radiation. Since 3D printing isn't yet super precise, the group then used "two-photon polymerization," where, as they put it, "...Brief but intensive laser impulses impact the material and stimulate the molecules in a very small focus point so that crosslinking of the molecules occurs." This allows the materials to become more elastic, allowing the final structres to be created.
Fraunhofer has been working on this project since 2009, so it's still early in its development. And although these researchers are way ahead of Cornell's "20 years" projection, the BioRap team isn't printing using actual human tissue. So while the project may have a way to go, it's encouraging to know that 3D printing technology is good for something other than printing chocolate or a styrofoam relief of your own face.
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