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A company called BioBots wants to change what we think 3D printing is capable of.
If a company called BioBots has its way, next-generation 3D printers won’t make knickknacks out of colorful plastic, but will instead make functioning human organs.
The company’s 3D printer, called BioBot 1, is officially available for purchase; it manufactures objects out of living cells.
This is only the latest in a line of happenings that suggest medicine stands to benefit great from 3D printing technology. An Australian company successfully printed a new ribcage for a cancer patient in Spain. The Open Hand Project has been underway since 2013 to create a fully functioning 3D-printed robotic prosthetic hand. Lee Cronin, a professor at the University of Glasgow, is the thought leader behind an eventual “chemputer” that might be able to print any drug on demand.
The BioBot 1 resembles the familiar form factor of MakerBot and PrintrBot devices, but instead of plastic or metal, it dispenses “bio-inks” made out of living cells like collagen, derived from human cartilage. By laying these inks down with an accuracy of 10 microns, the machine can create incredibly realistic simulations of human organs. It cures the biomaterial together using blue light, rather than with UV light or pressure, which could harm the material.
The finished products are not functioning organs, but they look and behave a lot like the real things. The promise is that medical research firms will be able to use BioBot technology to more rapidly test medicines and procedures on these analog organs, rather than recruit human test subjects.
In this sense, the $10,000 BioBot 1 printer is a rather specialized device, not something for the enterprising gadget hound in one’s life. This is only the first generation of the company’s printer, but the dream is that a more refined model might be able to make fully functioning human organs on demand in the future.
“The Holy Grail is to develop fully functioning replacement organs out of a patient’s own cells, eliminating the organ waiting list,” CEO and co-founder Danny Cabrera told Forbes. As the average wait time for a liver transplant in the United States is 149 days for adults and 86 days for kids, a future version of this technology could quite literally save lives.
This doesn’t mean the founders don’t appreciate a good gag, however. When they demonstrated an early version of their printer for TechCrunch in May, they printed out a lifelike replica of Vincent van Gogh’s famous missing ear.
Dylan Love is an editorial consultant and journalist whose reporting interests include emergent technology, digital media, and Russian language and culture. He is a former staff writer for the Daily Dot, and his work has been published by Business Insider, International Business Times, Men's Journal, and the Next Web.