Traditional 3D printing is the production of three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file, using a layering process. In its most common version, a source material, such as plastic, is liquefied, and then the machine adds layer after layer on the platform until you have a fully formed object. It’s mesmerizing to watch, even on a small scale.
On a large scale, Lennar Homes – one of the U.S. biggest homebuilders – recently announced it will be building an entire residential community near Austin, TX using 3D printing instead of traditional building materials. We are not far from a tipping point in the use of this technology. So, be prepared to see it more and more. It offers the potential more efficiently to conduct local manufacturing operations on a small scale at costs that are competitive with importing from China or other countries.
Much further away from a tipping point is 3D bioprinting. It’s a state-of-the-art technology that creates living tissues, such as skin, bones, blood vessels and internal organs, like the heart or kidneys. Needless to say, printing organs is a bit more complex than constructing a house. It conjures images of a distant future science fiction space adventure where storm troopers could be extruded from living tissue. In the near-future world of my new novel, The Awakening of Artemis, a character named Tara Leto, the Secretary of Defense, is approaching her 100th birthday. Today, living to 100 is unusual. In the future, it may not be.
Bioprinting can be the response to worldwide organ shortages and the increasing reluctance to test new cosmetic, chemical, and pharmaceutical products on animals. It could also be the solution to alarming worldwide organ shortages. A new person is added to the U.S. waiting list of organ donors every 9 minutes. Each day, seventeen people die due to the lack of available organs. And, it could be used to treat wounds and trauma in a hospital setting by bioprinting bones, tissue or skin at the point of treatment.
Yet, bioprinting faces serious challenges from a regulatory perspective. The FDA regulates medical devices and the solutions that come out of bioprinters. But it does not explicitly cover living cells in their regulations. Those applications are due to go through the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Regulations still lag behind the technology’s speed.
Bioprinting is a complicated technology, with many technological, biological and regulatory challenges. It won’t be applied in practice overnight, but it’s going to be a reality within a decade. Watch for it.