3D-printed body parts are fast becoming a reality

“Don’t try that, you’ll break your neck!”

This was a phrase I’d often hear as a kid.

Growing up, I was somewhat obsessed with stunts and acrobatics. I spent most of my childhood wanting to be a stuntman.

As you can imagine I had my fair share of broken bones and sprained limbs.

But the thing I always had in the back of my mind while doing these stunts was, if I land on my neck wrong, I’m going to end up paralyzed.

I mean, that’s what you assume, right? Damage your spine and you’re likely to never walk again.

So I was taken aback when I read the following story:

Woman, 28, with a massive neck tumour is saved after doctors gave her an unprecedented 3D printed spine.

This is a shocker for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the fact they 3D printed her a new section of spine.

And secondly, that she can still walk.

The article concludes:

They removed the six cervical vertebrae from Xiao Wen before putting in the 3D printed bones. The operation lasted 13 hours.

Xiao Wen has been discharged from the hospital and is recovering. She is able to walk now, but has difficulties turning her head, according to the reports.

You can read the article here. If you want to know more. Or here if you trust The Times more than The Daily Mail.

After doing more research, it’s clear the spine isn’t perfect. It doesn’t have the flexibility of a normal spine and so Xiao Wen can’t turn her neck.

But she can walk, and that’s incredible.

Of course, this isn’t anything to do with the spine’s nerves. If they’re badly damaged, there is currently no way to repair them.

However, even a treatment for spinal cord injuries may only be years away.

From UC San Diego News:

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine report that they have successfully created spinal cord neural stem cells (NSCs) from human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) that differentiate into a diverse population of cells capable of dispersing throughout the spinal cord and can be maintained for long periods of time. 

The achievement, described in the August 6 online issue of Nature Methods, advances not only basic research like biomedical applications of in vitro disease modeling, but may constitute an improved, clinically translatable cell source for replacement strategies in spinal cord injuries and disorders.

3D-printed corneas could help restore the sight of 5 million blind people per year

The number of 3D-printed body part breakthroughs have been adding up over the last couple years.

And one of the biggest came this May, when researchers at Newcastle University 3D printed a human cornea.

From The Independent:

It is thought the technique could supply an unlimited number of corneas – the transparent outer lens of the eye, that light passes through before hitting the retina at the back. Damage to it can distort vision or even lead to blindness.

Combining human stem cells from a healthy donor with collagen and alginate – a chemical often used to produce artificial limbs – the proof-of-concept research was able to produce a “bio-ink” for a 3D bio-printer.

It was then able print off a model of a cornea using the gel – building it by squeezing out the ink in concentric circles – in less than 10 minutes.

Stem cells were then added and left to grow to create a cornea which is theoretically ready for transplantation.

Ten million people a year have corneal surgery to prevent blindness from diseases. While 5 million people a year are completely blinded from corneal scarring.

The reason 3D printing is such a great solution to creating corneas is because it is so precise. The researchers showed they can scan a patient’s eye and then use that scan to 3D print a cornea to the patient’s exact dimensions.

However, Professor Che Connon, who led the study, was quick to add that corneal transplants made with this method are still a number of years away:

Our 3D printed corneas will now have to undergo further testing and it will be several years before we could be in the position where we are using them for transplants.

However, what we have shown is that it is feasible to print corneas using coordinates taken from a patient eye and that this approach has potential to combat the world-wide shortage.

3D-printed ears are already hear (sorry)

In one of the greatest action films of all time, Face/Off, John Travolta has Nicolas Cage’s face swapped for his own so he can infiltrate Cage’s terrorism gang.

At the time, Cage is in a coma. But he soon wakes up – without a face. Understandably annoyed, he forces the police surgeons to then put Travolta’s face where his own should be.

Cage then infiltrates Travolta’s life while Travolta is infiltrating his. As you can imagine, it leads to a whole world of trouble.

But in the scene where they are talking Travolta into taking on Cage’s face, in the background there is a laser building a new ear for an agent who was shot in the field.

When this film was made in 1997, the idea of 3D printing an ear was pure science fiction. But 20 or so years on, it’s become a reality.

From The Verge:

For the first time, scientists in China have created new ears for five children using their own cells grown in a 3D-printed mold.

First, the scientists made a 3D-printed model of the children’s healthy ears, then reversed it to make a mold of what the other ear would look like. Next, they collected cartilage cells from the deformed ear and grew them in the biodegradable mold for three months. Finally, they grafted the new ears, including the mold, onto the children.

You can see in the photo below just how well one of the transplants progressed over 30 months.


Source: @EBioMedicine

You can read the full study here.

The thing you’ll notice with these 3D-printed body parts, though, is they are reasonably simple. They aren’t complicated internal organs.

A real breakthrough in this area would be to 3D print a complete vital organ. When scientists can do that, it will change everything.

3D printing vital organs would be the first step on the ladder of immortality.

And it turns out, it’s just been done.

That’s what I’m going to be writing about next Friday.

Until then,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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