Research Heralds 3D-Printed Organs and even Hearts

By Catherine

3D printing human organs

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Few would have guessed the trajectory from 1970s inkjet printers to 3D printed organs consisting of human cells, yet, that’s where we’re headed.

3D printers apply layers of melted plastic to create complex objects, from the silly to the serious, including personalized prostheses such as eyes, ears or knees. A patient at the University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands, recently was the first to receive a custom 3D printed plastic skull.

A step beyond plastic parts is a biological-synthetic combination. A personalized 3D printed scaffolding is made of synthetic material, on which living cells are placed that will grow around the structure. This technique, which prints the structure but not the cells, is being examined for bone and for skin.

Cells we isolate from fat will stimulate bone formation and blood vessel formation in these structures,” says Stuart K. Williams, director of the bioficial organs program at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. “That is on the cusp of becoming utilized in a more widespread manner.”

The next goal: to use 3D printing techniques with live cells. Tissue made artificially with real human cells is called “bioficial.”

A patch of bone tissue may one day help patients whose vertebrae are damaged by an injury or cancer. Cartilage, which doesn’t regenerate on its own, could be repaired with bioficial tissue created from patients’ own cells. And perhaps, someday, entire organs could be replaced.

3d printed head

Cells are trickier to work with than plastic. The printer itself has to be adjusted—rather than melting at high temperatures, it has to use low temperatures that won’t kill the cells. It has to be sterile. A robot-controlled syringe squeezes out the cells, which are suspended in a gel that can solidify and maintain the desired shape, similar to gelatin desserts. But those desserts melt when they get warm; for the 3D printed tissue not to melt in the heat of the body requires other chemical processes to ensure they retain the desired shape, says Jos Malda, deputy head of orthopedic research at University Medical Center Utrecht.

Not just that, but each cell needs nutrition. When a body part or organ loses its blood supply, it dies. “If you create a larger construct in the lab, keeping that piece alive is a big challenge,” Dr. Malda says.

Finally, “having cells in the right place doesn’t mean an organ will function,” Dr. Malda says. “But never say never.”

These challenges are why Dr. Williams decided to focus on a bioficial heart. “It doesn’t have complex metabolic activities like the liver or kidneys do. A heart is simply a pump. It pushes blood out and allows blood to come back in,” Dr. Williams says.

The artificial heart was one of the first implanted devices made of synthetic materials. Dr. Williams’s team is working to make a bioficial heart, starting by printing individual parts: the valves, the cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells), the electrical conduction system, the large blood vessels and the small blood vessels.

We have made dramatic steps forward printing the individual parts of the heart,” he says. “We haven’t assembled it yet, but it’s likely to happen in the not too distant future. It won’t be ready for implantation, but we will be able to understand how the heart works in assembled form.”

The first step is to assemble blood vessels to ensure the blood supply. That would allow for building tissue two to four centimeters thick that has its own blood supply.

Back in 1988, Dr. Williams used fat-derived cells to build a blood vessel and put it into the body of a patient. “Fat has the capability of forming all the different cells found in the heart,” he says.

Some day, doctors might be able to take a patient’s own cells to build a replacement organ, thereby getting around the problems of rejection of a donor organ.

Perhaps we’ll find out it isn’t necessary for a bioficial heart to look exactly like a real heart, or a bioficial kidney to look exactly like a real kidney for them to work well. “Maybe we can make it more simplistic, using a slightly different blueprint,” Dr. Williams says.

Will the first use in a patient be the complete heart or parts of a heart?” he asks. “I think it will be parts: a patch of large and small blood vessels.”

Such a patch, which researchers are trying to make in the lab, could be used in a patient whose blood isn’t reaching part of the heart. Another possibility is pediatric applications, for children whose hearts haven’t formed properly because of a genetic defect.

We’re hoping that one day we’ll be able to treat the patient by repairing parts long before they are in such a condition that we have to replace the entire organ,” Dr. Williams says.

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

SOLIDWORKS Partners with FABLABS and FAB Academies

By Marie

SOLIDWORKS partners with FAB Foundation to sponsor the global network of FABLABS and FAB Academies.  At FAB10 Conference, Disseny Hub Barcelona, I have been fortunate to work with Sherry Lassiter, director of FAB Foundation and to meet many FABLAB coordinators from around the world.

#FAB10 Barcelona

The FAB Foundation facilitates and supports the growth of the international FABLAB network.


The first FABLAB started at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms under the direction of Neil Gershenfeld.  FABLAB’s mission is “to provide access to the tools, the knowledge and the financial means to educate, innovate and invent using technology and digital fabrication to allow anyone to make (almost) anything.”

#Fab10 Audience

FABLABs and FAB Academies impact is felt everywhere and shared this week at the FAB10 Conference.  Helping to create new jobs, educating the young and the not so young, developing the entrepreneurial spirit, FABLABs growth rate is exploding – doubling every 18 months.

FAB10 Fashion

SOLIDWORKS 3D Design software will be an integral part of the FABLABs and FAB Academies registered with FAB Foundation.  SOLIDWORKS supports the FAB Foundation’s efforts in 3D design, manufacturing, teaching and learning.

FAB10 Kid's Fest

This post originally appeared on the SOLIDWORKS Education Blog.

Marie PLANCHARD is Director of the Education Community for SOLIDWORKS. You can reach her @mplanchard1.

How 3D Printing Is a Revolutionary Sustainable Innovation

By Asheen

3D printingAs a sustainable innovation leader at a technology company, I’m often asked about the implications of recent advances on sustainable innovation. In this article I’ll highlight the potential of 3D printing to revolutionize sustainable innovation.

Three-dimensional printing — or more specifically, additive manufacturing, the term generally used to mean commercial-scale production using 3D printing technologies — is a concept that deserves its geek fandom. But I’d wager that few people have appreciated its revolutionary implications as a sustainable technology. Philosophically, 3D printing is the first technology that has the potential to enable a more biomimetic production model by aligning with one of nature’s fundamental tenets: the tendency to manufacture locally. (These and other deep design principles from nature are collectively known as the practice of biomimicry.)

Why Additive Manufacturing is a Shift

To understand why, consider the difference between how an object is traditionally manufactured and how one is produced additively. Traditional manufacturing methods focus on milling a starting blank — that is, removing material until you’ve achieved the desired shape — or injecting material into a mold. Both types of processes rely on expensive, high-throughput machinery to achieve high economies of scale that minimize costly raw material waste, so such manufacturing is generally performed at a company’s main production facility and then shipped around the world. In an additively manufactured product, in contrast, the product is printed layer by layer, with each cross section stacked on top of the one below it. Since this operation can be performed without huge, high-throughput machinery, it can be performed at hundreds or thousands of remote locations — or millions, if you consider the potential of a 3D printer in every household — with near-zero waste.

This hints at a very interesting shift for commercial product makers: they can focus on designing the best product as the source of their intellectual capital, rather than on how the design can be cheaply manufactured. Imagine, for example, if we could purchase the 3D model of an object we wanted to buy, rather than the object itself, and then download and print it in our home 3D printer. By buying this design from an “app store” of 3D objects rather than a brick-and-mortar shop, and printing it ourselves, we’ve completely eliminated all of the waste of traditional manufacture, as well as 100% of the energy and material normally consumed in transportation and packaging — while enjoying a more custom-tailored and convenient shopping experience.

3D Printing Materials

Sustainable Manufacturing

It’s also worth highlighting the materials that are typically used in a 3D printer — surprisingly, here too we can find a sustainability story. The most common materials used for the printing of plastic parts are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Both are thermoplastics; that is, they become soft and moldable when they’re heated, and return to a more solid state when they’re cooled. ABS is far from environmentally friendly, but PLA is actually a sugar-derived polymer, so it can be made from plants; most commonly, it’s made from corn. (If you’ve ever drunk from a clear plastic cup or used a plastic fork marked “compostable” or “made from corn”, that was PLA.) Provided that we use ecologically sound agricultural practices, we could sustainably grow the feedstock for all of our 3D-printed objects!

The other beautiful thing about thermoplastics is that they can be re-melted and reshaped into new objects several times (though not infinitely, as their structure will eventually depolymerize). That means that when you’re ready to change your toy truck into a toy airplane, you could, in theory, toss it back into the 3D printer to be reshaped into the new object. This gets to one of the biggest sustainability challenges with plastic products today: their end-of-life treatment. Putting plastics into curbside recycling bins seems like an environmentally sound idea (and it’s still better than throwing them into a landfill), but once they’re trucked, sorted, cleaned, and usually commingled with lower-value resins, there’s usually not much economic margin to squeeze out of these recycled plastics — one reason why their rates of recycling are so low. In contrast, putting your pure PLA back into your 3D printer eliminates this whole recycling chain — so we can add “end-of-life impacts” along with transportation and manufacturing waste to our list of eliminated life cycle impacts.

Metals can also be made using an additive manufacturing practice called selective laser sintering (SLS), although these “printers” are much higher-end. Once these become suitable for casual use, it opens up a whole new category of objects that can be built. Although in theory metal is infinitely recyclable (its simpler crystalline structure does not degrade with re-melting), the grinding steps needed to reprocess the used metal into powder suitable for sintering would require a lot more equipment and energy, and would likely prohibit the recycling of 3D-printed metal objects in the same printer – even a direct SLS printer (which uses a single material powder).

At the Doorstep of Future Usages

True radical innovation occurs not from new technologies, but when those new technologies enable newly possible business models. Take, for example, the cool modular mobile phone concept called Phonebloks. Imagine that you want that new, higher-megapixel cell camera block that they refer to… so you just buy and download the new block, toss your old one back in the printer, and print up the new model in PLA with a metal layer with the electronics sintered on — all powered by the solar panels on your roof. Now, we’re starting to approach the manufacturing process used sustainably by nature over the last 3.8 billion years. And someday; your house?

Asheen PhanseyAsheen PHANSEY is Head of the Sustainable Innovation Lab at Dassault Systèmes

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