You'll never look at your ink-jet printer the same way again.
Researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, have developed a process for building human skin, bones and organs to spec using ink-jet printer technology.
This breakthrough overcomes problems currently faced by scientists who are unable to grow large tissues and have limited control over the shape or size the tissue will grow to. It also allows more than one type of cell to be printed at once, which opens up the possibility of being able to create bone grafts.
"Using conventional methods, you are only able to grow tissues which are a few millimetres thick, which is fine for growing artificial skin, but if you wanted to grow cartilage, for instance, it would be impossible," Professor Derby says.
The key to the advance which Professor Derby and his team have made is the innovative way in which they are able to pre-determine the size and shape of the tissue or bone grown.
Using the printers, they are able create 3-dimensional structures, known as 'tissue scaffolds'. The shape of the scaffold determines the shape of the tissue as it grows. The structures are created by printing very thin layers of a material repeatedly on top of each other until the structure is built. Each layer is just 10 microns thick (1,000 layers equals 1cm in thickness).
[...] Professor Derby believes the potential for this technology is huge: "You could print the scaffolding to create an organ in a day," he says
The BBC News has a few more details. A 2003 information "poster" (PDF) done by a Rachel Saunders, postgrad member of the University of Manchester research team, has further information about the nature of the technology. She notes that the droplet-control system used is identical to that used by ink-jet printers.
Using ink-jet tech and scaffolding to build biological structures isn't new, but this research overcomes some significant barriers to making print-to-spec organs a reality. Ink-jet technology may turn out to be one of the cornerstones of a new era in manufacturing. Already capable of printing polymer electronics and potentially solar cells, ink-jet tech is at the heart of modern 3D printers, or "fabbers."
As always, this research needs some time before getting to the point where it will affect our daily lives. But when translated into a shippable product, organ printers will have some pretty amazing implications. No longer having to worry about tissue rejection or a lack of available donor organs is one obvious result, and the possibility of more accurate (and aesthetically pleasing for the recipient) reconstructive surgery was one of the drivers of the research. If more complex organs could be created (as might be possible if the scaffolding system is combined with stem cell research), one can imagine a scenario where organ replacement is a faster, safer option than organ repair (such as open-heart surgery).
But this technology would have implications beyond the medical world. For example, this technology should work equally well for building non-human muscle tissue for consumption as meat. While the comparative expense would be enormous at first, artificially-grown real meat might have some distinct advantages: it would be cruelty-free, by definition; meat factories could be anywhere, would take up much less space than cattle ranches or chicken farms, and ostensibly produce much less waste (and methane!); fields now used to grow grain for livestock could instead grow food for people, or even become CO2 sequestration sites; and control over the "seed" cells would mean that prion contaminations (leading to mad cow disease) could be completely avoided. While "vat-grown" hamburgers have been a staple of science fiction stories for awhile now, the future may instead be in "meat-jet printers." When McDonald's buys Epson, you'll know that this future is near.
And if that's not a weird enough idea, think of this: given recent breakthroughs, it may not be too long before we see a synthesis of work done in printing electronics, printing biological tissue, and musclebots...