The benefits of 3D printing technology go much farther than plastic figurines and knick-knacks. In nearly every industry, 3D printers are starting to revolutionize and streamline how things are made. One major development can be found in the medical world, where Canadian engineering students have designed a special 3D printer that creates skin grafts.
In development since 2008 PrintAlive— invented by students at the University of Toronto, together with two professors and Dr. Marc Jeschke, head of Sunnybrook Hospital’s Ross Tilley Burn Center — offers a much easier alternative to traditional skin grafts, which remove skin from another area of a patient’s body. Instead, this “bioprinting” machine can create wound dressings from a cell-populated cartridge, in the same way that standard 3D printers use plastic filament cartridges. Containing microfluid, the cartridge material is printed into layers that mimic human skin, which can then be customized for a specific thickness, surface area, and composition. Most importantly, this microfluid comes from the patient’s own stem cells, so the final skin graft is highly unlikely of being rejected. PrintAlive already won this year’s James Dyson Awards, which earned them $3,500 to put towards future development costs. Perhaps they will take home the $60,000 grand prize!
To speed up the grafting process — which can normally take weeks when growing cells in a culture — PrintAlive prints in a spotted or striped pattern, so far fewer cells are necessary. The printer shoots out a liquid, which hardens into a gel and forms a two-layer, biodegradable dressing. Now in its second iteration, the machine takes up a little less space than a microwave and is still in the prototype stage. Once they get it to a commercial level, PrintAlive will be portable enough to bring to the farthest reaches of the Earth, which could save countless lives in rural villages and poorer areas. Focusing on developing and middle-income countries is particularly important with this invention, since that’s where 90% of burn accidents occur. Generally, these countries have less access to medical facilities for burns, so PrintAlive has the potential to be the perfect solution. At present, the PrintAlive grafts have been tested on mice and will be used on pigs soon.
Besides skin grafting, bioprinter technology could potentially be used to create entire organs with multiple stem cell cartridges. Research is already being conducted to see how engineers could achieve such an ambitious task; the composition of skin is much easier to replicate than a heart or lung, for example. So far, scientists have discovered how to use 3D printers to make artificial ears with cartilage cells, and vascular tissue containing blood vessel networks. For now, the PrintAlive is a huge step in the right direction, marking thebeginning of a new era in medical care.