Soon, doctors will ‘print’ missing body parts for transplants

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3D printing body parts
A 3D model of a complex anaplastology case, created in collaboration with the anaplastologist Jan De Cubber, is seen at the Belgian company Materialise, the biggest 3D printer in Europe, in Leuven January 24, 2013. 3D printing has already changed the game for manufacturing specialized products such as medical devices but the real revolution will come when designers start to rethink the shapes of objects. Materialise, a pioneer in the process, has a display of a foldable chair printed from one continuous piece of plastic - and made with the hinges already joined together, for example. Picture taken on January 24, 2013. Reuters/Yves Herman

Doctors could soon recreate an entire missing body part for a transplant as scientists are developing a new 3D printing method to regrow cartilage in the lab for new body parts. Researchers are aiming to help patients who were born with defects and those who lost body parts because of trauma or cancer.

Researchers from Morriston Hospital in Swansea, Wales are primarily aiming to reconstruct noses and ears for patients needing surgery. The new technique involves taking a small sample of cartilage from a patient, growing their cells in an incubator and combining them with a printable material.

Scientists will use a liquid formula to create a jelly-like material, which will be used to 3D print the missing body part based on scans taken from the patient. The process is expected to take about two months before the transplant.

"We're trying to print biological structures using human cells, and provide the right environment and the right timing so it can grow into tissue that we can eventually put into a human,” the BBC quoted Professor Iain Whitaker, a consultant plastic surgeon at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital.

However, Whitaker noted that the method is still in its early stages of development, which requires initial tests on animals before using the transplants on humans. The researchers hope to start using the technique on humans within three years.

“But we already have proof of concept that human cells can survive within the printable structures we’ve made so far, and will survive the printing process,” he added. "It would be to reconstruct lost body parts such as part of the nose or the ear and ultimately large body parts including bone, muscle and vessels."

The prosthetics industry could significantly benefit from the new 3D printing technique as it was designed to create cartilage-based parts, commonly facial features that cannot be replaced by prosthetic devices, according to 3Dprint.com.

The team of surgeons is working with scientists and engineers who developed the 3D printer specifically for their work. Whitaker highlighted that the method could potentially allow patients to recreate a body part without taking it from another part of their body which would cause defects or scars.