January 1, 2014

In the early 2000s, bioengineer Dr. Thomas Boland, one of the forefathers of bioprinting, retrofitted a standard inkjet printer so that it would use cells as ink. By 2003 he had started to develop “organ printers” with the concept that a desktop printer could print gels, single cells, and aggregates of cells in a sequential layer-by-layer manner so that organs could be printed and assembled de novo.1 In a thought-provoking paper, Boland and collaborators state that the “combination of an engineering approach with the developmental biology concept of embryonic tissue fluidity enables the creation of a new rapid prototyping 3-D organ printing technology, which will dramatically accelerate and optimize tissue and organ assembly.”

Disruption materializing

More than 10 years later, 3-dimensional (3-D) printing and bioprinting are a reality and will be commonplace in the very near future. In a report released by Goldman Sachs last summer titled “The Search for Creative Destruction,” 3-D printing was among 8 industries highlighted for their disruptive capabilities.2 The report states that the 3-D printing industry is already a $2.2 billion market; analysts estimate that the industry will grow to more than $10 billion by 2021. Although it makes up less than 20% of the current market, the 3-D printing industry has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of health care.

It is important to recognize that 3-D printing and bioprinting are 2 different yet interrelated concepts. 3-D printing, a technology that has been around for more than 20 years, takes computer-based digital information and creates a 3-D solid object by adding layers of a material in structured sequence. The printing typically requires architectural design or computer-aided design (CAD) software, but once the 3-D blueprint has been assembled, all you have to do is push the print button! At Yale University’s Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID), more than 500 students and faculty have been trained in the use of 3-D printers. According to Dr. Joseph Zinter, the assistant director of CEID, “In the past year, we have 3-D-printed everything from scientific research tools to key chains, ancient Egyptian artifacts to trombone mouthpieces, race car parts to human tumors.”3

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