The first 3D printed organ -- a liver -- is expected in 2014

Printed tissue could vastly improve drug testing

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One approach with 3D printing has been to print out a temporary "scaffolding" made of sugar glass (a sugar-and-water combination) that can act as a mold to support cells that eventually form blood vessels. It's similar to the way a bronze statue is created: First the mold is formed, then filled with metal. In this case, living cells are used instead of metal.

Miller and others have had some success re-creating those vascular structures through the use of sugar glass -- the same substance that's used to make easily breakable bottles and windows for stunts in movies.

"You start with a template, cast it and then melt [the sugar glass] out, leaving the vascular structure behind," Miller said. "Sugar is great because it's very rigid."

Using sugar glass as the scaffolding, Miller and his team of researchers have had some success in re-creating liver tissue. To date, the researchers have been able to create a piece of tissue the size of a thumbnail and keep it alive for two weeks.

Replacing ears and breasts

Earlier this year, researchers at Princeton University created a functional ear using a modified $1,000 ink-jet printer. They said the ear they created has the potential to hear radio frequencies far beyond the range of normal human capability because the tissue was combined with electronics as it grew in a petri dish.

Bionic ear
Princeton University's "bionic ear" was initially printed into a petri dish using a modified ink-jet printer. (Image: Princeton University)

The researchers laid down 3D printed cells and structural nanoparticles to build the ear. A cell culture was used to combine a small coil antenna with cartilage, creating what the scientists called a "bionic ear."

Scott Collins, CTO and vice president of research and development at bio-printing company TeVido BioDevices, said his firm is in the early-stages of using 3D bio-printing of live cells to build custom implants and grafts for breast cancer survivors.

This year alone, about 300,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer and up to 60% of them will choose a lumpectomy. According to TeVido BioDevices, at least 25% of women who undergo lumpectomies are dissatisfied with their physical appearance after the operation.

TeVido is developing an implant from fat and skin cells as well as working to print nipples and the surrounding areola using the patient's own cells. That way, the tissue won't be rejected and will have natural shape and pigmentation.

"Today, we have ways of implanting the breast mound, but as far as rebuilding nipple and areola, it doesn't work well," Collins said. "The pigment is just tattooed on and fades over time."

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at  @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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