By Steve Johnson
San Jose Mercury News.
SAN JOSE, Calif.
It sounds like something from a science fiction plot: So-called three-dimensional printers are being used to fashion prosthetic arms and hands, jaw bones, spinal-cord implants, and one day perhaps even living human body parts.
While the parts printed for humans so far have been fashioned from plastic, metal and other inorganic materials, researchers in California and elsewhere also have begun printing living tissue, with the goal of eventually employing these “bioprinters” to create customized kidneys, livers and other organs for people needing transplants. What’s particularly attractive about the technology, according to its proponents, is that 3-D printers can produce body parts much quicker and cheaper than other methods.
“You can make things for tens of dollars rather than thousands of dollars,” said Stanford University professor Dr. Paul Wang, a cardiovascular and bioengineering expert who is among those studying the printers’ potential for prosthetics, replacement bones and other applications. “It’s totally opened up what’s possible.”
Developed in the 1980s by physicist Charles Hull, 3-D printers have been used to make everything from jewelry, toys and guns to smartphone cases, car components and portions of NASA’s robotic Mars rover. Last year, a Chinese firm even constructed a five-story apartment building from 3-D-printed walls and other pieces.
Although the process varies, 3-D printing typically involves using an inkjet-like printer that extrudes layer upon layer of substances into shapes digitally fashioned with computer-aided-design software. Applied to medicine in recent years, the technology is producing remarkable results. People missing limbs or suffering other physical problems have been outfitted with printed arms, hands, shoulder joints, heel bones and portions of spines, hips, faces and skulls, among other things.
Bespoke Products of San Francisco 3-D-prints “fairings,” which fit around prosthetic legs to make them look more natural. And a researcher for software company Autodesk is helping Ugandan officials learn how to print other prosthetic leg parts for children in that country.