3D printing has helped us make plastic knick knacks, phone cases, action figures and braces for broken arms. And now it can help make you a new ear.Researchers from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Biotechnology detailing a new 3D printer that can build biocompatible tissues for use in transplants, including muscle, cartilage, bone and an entire human ear.Don’t start getting reckless with your vegetable chopping yet though, the technology hasn’t been tested on humans and the research team isn’t finished.


The 3D printer, called the integrated tissue-organ printer (ITOP), has overcome some of the hurdles of 3D printing that kept researchers from creating stable, human-scale tissue constructs. Research team member Anthony Atala told Mashable the team prints the structures with cell-laden hydrogels, which acts as a sort of “bio-ink”. But using hydrogels is just the first step of making successful and lasting tissues.

“One of the major limitations of nature is that tissues or cells will not survive in volumes larger than 100-200 µm, which is about .1-.2 mm,” Researcher Anthony Atala told Mashable. Cells need to be close enough to blood-carrying capillaries to get the nutrition necessary to survive through diffusion.

“What we did with the printing technology is

we created microchannels in the structure that allowed the nutrition to go through and allow us to basically overcome nature’s limit

we created microchannels in the structure that allowed the nutrition to go through and allow us to basically overcome nature’s limit,” Atala said.Other 3D printers don’t work at such a precise or small scale to do what Atala’s team needed, which was to effectively mimic capillaries in order to keep the cell-laden hydrogels from deteriorating. The medical field currently mostly uses 3D printing to make models for surgeons to look at and prepare with before difficult surgeries. In 2015, doctors at the University of Rochester Medical Center used a 3D-printed model of a patient’s heart to get an idea of what they needed to do to make her heart surgery a success.

To test the results of this new 3D printing technology, the Wake Forest Institute team attached the 3D-printed tissues to lab rats. They implanted bioprinted bone tissue on rats and analyzed it after 5 months, finding new vascularized tissue in the implants and no necrosis.

The shaping of the tissues is done by taking a digital model of the body part or portion of tissue and translating it into a software program that controls the ITOP. This means the printer is capable of creating any size or shape you give it, and is entirely customizable.

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The process of creating the 3D-printed ear, from digital model to physical product.



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