What if you could press a button and a machine would make you a new nose or kidney? Scientists are exploring that futuristic vision by using special 3-D printers to make living body parts.
Called bioprinters, these machines use human cells as “ink.” A standard 3-D printer layers plastic to create car parts, for example, or trinkets, but a bioprinter layers cells to form three-dimensional tissues and organs.
To create an ear, the printer lays down a pliable, porous scaffold made of hydrogel, a kind of polymer. The scaffold is covered with skin cells and cartilage cells, which grow and fill in the ear-shaped form. The hydrogel eventually biodegrades; after about six months the ear is composed entirely of human cells. “We use the patient’s own cells,” says Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest University’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. That way the organs won’t be rejected.