3D Printers That Can Create Synthetic Blood Vessels

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For some time now, printing technology has been pushing the boundaries of mass production. 3D printers make solid objects by building in vertical layers on a two-dimensional print. These printers have been used to make industrial components, architectural models, clothing and even user-designed chocolates. But researchers around the world have focused on printing medical advances--with some truly amazing results.

Last year, James Yoo of Wake Forest University proved that it was possible to print artificial skin directly onto burn patients. The trouble Yoo's team ran into was creating internal vasculature in the skin they created, obviously a crucial component to any functional tissue. Then this spring, surgeon Anthony Atala printed a model of a human kidney on stage at the 2011 TED conference. Atala's innovation allowed a 3D printer to scan the organ that needed to be replaced. Using a small tissue sample from the patient, the printer then replicated the tissue and built a new organ. While an advance in lab-grown organs, these kidney models similarly lacked any kind of circulatory system.

Until now, the only thing holding printers back from true organ creation was this inability to supply artificial tissues with the nutrients that arrive in natural tissues through capillaries. But on September 13th, a group from Fraunhofer Institute in Germany announced they have created a way to print blood vessels. Scientists have been able to actually print synthetic blood vessels using "two-photon polymerisation" -- essentially using strong laser beams to stimulate molecules into linked elastic solids. These tube-like vessels, when coated with modified bio-molecules, can connect with a human's natural tissue, forming an artificial circulatory system that can be linked up to the patient's natural circulatory system.

This advance in printing technology may prove the crucial next step in enabling scientists to truly mass produce bone, skin, and replacement organs in a laboratory. In 2007, 2.5 million Americans waiting for a transplant organ died. While still in the early stages of development, this technology could save millions of lives.

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Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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