Colorado is just a divine place to be, in nearly any season. With warm days in summer and cool nights putting you under the down comforter, beautiful changing leaves to check out in fall, and epic winters which turn into the relief of spring, it’s a place of continual wonder. Whether you are into climbing a snow-capped fourteener, heading down a rugged biking trail, or just enjoying the general great vibe of the area, once you get here, it’s not a place you want to leave. And that’s how many a graduating student, entrepreneur, and CEO have ended up with startup offices, business storefronts, and massive manufacturing facilities here, in a state that has a long history with technology companies. Although tech titans like Apple have since moved their business out, the state continues to thrive as a mecca for those brave souls who endeavor to be at the technological forefront. It’s not all about sitting on a bench somewhere strumming a guitar or drinking craft beer—there’s work to be done!
And as technology evolves, today we see 3D printing catching on in many of the cities and small towns of Colorado, ushering in a new wave of progress and enthusiasm, from 3D printing manufacturers we follow, winning awards and worldwide acclaim like Aleph Objects and their LulzBot 3D printers (having just completed their millionth print), to schools that are instituting amazing 3D printing labs in their media centers. Those are just a couple of examples, and now one university is suddenly making a big splash as they announce their intentions to 3D print body parts.
Perhaps you are just learning about 3D printing and that sounds like something that might possibly happen in the way, way waaaaaaay off future, or maybe you’re pretty educated on the technology and that sounds completely feasible. Whatever the case, 3D printing body parts is definitely a process that’s underway at Denver University, in coordination with the 3D Printing Store.
The researchers are exploring the use of a bioprinter from BioBots. With this machine, they are actually already able to fabricate replicas of organs, tissues, and other body parts; in fact, at DU, they are now making 3D printed heart valves—and in less than 25 minutes! Using scans of MRIs and CT scans, they are able to make patient specific parts, like these valves.
“We’re really trying to take what’s become an accessible tool and use the most sophisticated thinking that we can to create something that will benefit all people,” said DU graduate research assistant Ben Stewart.
Indeed, with the speed, affordability, and customization factors offered through scanning and then 3D printing, the course of medical care is being and will be transformed monumentally—especially as this translates to organs and saying goodbye to waiting lists for transplants.
“This exactly matches the shape of a patient’s heart valve,” Stewart says, holding his 3D printed piece, which has a mission once inserted into the human body.
It’s hoped that cells would attach to one of these 3D printed devices, build up in its shape—and in the end the 3D printed replica will dissolve, leaving a healthy valve in its place.
“Those native fibers and native cells, they replace the entire scaffolding leaving nothing but natural, real blood vessel cells,” he said.
The teamwork involved between DU and the 3D Printing Store is inspirational in itself, as the business bought the BioBots bioprinter and gave it to DU to use. They understand the deep impacts this technology and the studies going on at DU have to offer the world, and wanted to play a valuable part.
“Some of the people that I know have said, ‘This would change my niece’s life,’ or ‘This would change my friend’s life,’” said store co-founder Debra Wilcox.
So far, the team has also printed a replica of a human ear. And while they are not yet actually making 3D printed organs (as is the end goal for many labs around the world today), they are certainly already working to make a difference. Valves such as the one they are currently perfecting would obviously be very helpful for children who are still growing, but need surgery. Traditional prosthetic valves are used for these procedures, but are not optimal in many cases.
“That (prosthetic) valve cannot grow as the child grows,” said Dr. Ali Azadani, Director of the DU Cardiac Biomechanics Lab. “So those patients typically need to go through multiple surgeries for their aortic valve. That’s very invasive, and that’s not the best approach. By designing tissue engineered valves, we can implant a valve in the heart that can grow with the child.”
While many look toward to the day that organs are being produced for transplant, and most researchers expect that to happen, certainly the small steps that are being taken already are incredibly miraculous in themselves, and capable of both bettering—and sometimes saving—lives.
“It’s not like there’s been this huge body of research out there that we can go and look at and learn from,” said Wilcox. “We are writing that book, and they’re writing important chapters right here at DU.”
Discuss in the DU 3D Printed Organ Replicas forum over at 3DPB.com.