Do you remember Vincent van Gogh? The Dutch Post-Impressionist painter is one of history’s most famous artists.
That fame comes from more than his art. His mental illness is just as renowned. The most notable incident came after a heated argument with his roommate and fellow artist: van Gogh cut off one ear and gave it to a prostitute.
Now van Gogh’s ear is making headlines again – for a completely different reason.
3D Bioprinting van Gogh’s Ear
In 2014 artist Diemut Strebe printed a copy of van Gogh’s ear. She used living cells extracted from van Gogh’s great-grandson to print the ear. That’s right: this 3D printed ear is made of living tissue.
This story is more than a little disturbing. But it also showcases how important 3D printing is to healthcare.
We often hear stories about 3D printing in the world of orthopedics. For years, we’ve been creating prosthetics using 3D printed materials.
Occurrences like van Gogh’s ear, however, point to a different type of 3D printing for medical use: 3D bioprinting. And this technology could have an even more radical impact on people’s lives.
The Oxford Dictionary defines 3D bioprinting as “the use of 3D printing technology with materials that incorporate viable living cells, e.g. to produce tissue for reconstructive surgery.” Bioprinting has been around since the 1990s.
Bioprinting has had its issues since then. Many attempts at creating tissues failed because the printed materials couldn’t support themselves. Others could potentially work, but would print too slowly to use live tissue.
Recently, though, researchers have made huge accomplishments in bioprinting.
- Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA are working on bioprinting blood vessels.
- The Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine created a printer that can print new skin directly onto burn wounds and another printer for structurally-sound bone, cartilage, and muscle.
- Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University developed a support bath that would allow the manufacture of soft biological materials (such as organ tissue) using an off-the-shelf printer and hacked open-source software.
Bioprinting Versus Traditional Medical Technology
There are many problems with what we’ve been doing in medicine. For example, in reconstructive surgeries, healthy tissue is often removed from another part of the body and grafted into the area being reconstructed. This leaves multiple wounds. And in extensive injuries, there might not be enough healthy tissue for the graft.
Transplants have even more issues. With transplants:
- Doctors must find donor tissue that matches the intended recipient.
- Even with tissue matching, the donated organ may still be rejected by your body.
- You must take immuno-suppressant drugs before your surgery and for the rest of your life.
- There’s a shortage of donated organs so many people never receive a transplant.
Researchers are looking for ways to use bioprinting to:
- Manufacture tissues from biocompatible materials (meaning your body won’t reject them).
- Copy your own tissue so that extensive grafts aren’t necessary.
- Grow organs from your own cells to lessen the risk of rejection and use of immune-suppressant drugs.
- Decrease the need for donated organs.
Why Bioprinting Works in Medicine
Our DNA may be similar in many ways, but each person is unique. It’s easy to 3D print tissue that’s customized to the person receiving it. All you need to do is upload a new file.
And you already have the basis for that 3D image in the patient’s medical records. 3D files can be based on MRI scans, ultrasound images, X-rays, and more.
3D Printing in the Healthcare Industry
Bioprinting is only one way 3D printing is having a positive effect on the healthcare industry. But it’s a huge one. 3D printing’s flexibility and ease of customization makes it a good fit for medicine – and means many lives will be saved or improved in the future.