3D printers have been used for a number of years in construction and food technologies but are now making the leap to the medical with the advent of technology that allows them to “print” new skin and cartilage.
This new printer use is being led by Professor James Yoo of the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University and stemmed in large part from the desire to assist soldiers on the front lines of combat, for example those in Afghanistan, who receive skin-based injuries such as burns. Data shows that approximately 30% of injuries sustained in the field are skin-related and as a result, a Yoo’s research was given a healthy funding boost from the US Department of Defense.
Yoo began with conventional 3D printers and he and his team have now designed one that uses a laser to scan a wound, determining its depth and total area. Next, the scan is converted to a three dimensional image that allows the printer to determine how many layers of skin will be needed in order to close the wound and then printing itself can begin.
So far, a Cornell team has been able to successfully re-create a human ear using nothing but a 3D scan and silicone gel and Yoo has printed a 10cm square of actual skin onto apig. The next frontier for 3D bio-printing will be bone and cartilage printing, though both of these pose greater challenges as they are more complex, internal structures.
With new scanning techniques and dedicated funding from the US Department for Defense, the hope is that the 3D printing process can be further refined to allow for large organ and internal structure printing, and Yoo predicts that within the next 10 years this type of technology will be commonplace.