Being able to recreate a damaged human organ or other body part by simply pressing a few buttons on a keyboard is closer to reality than many people may realize.

While creating small pieces of living tissue can be done now in a lab, constructing complex organs, or bioprinting, is still something more akin to science fiction than science fact. The advent of the 3D printer is expected to change that. The specialty printers have the ability to accurately lay down layers of organic material in pretty much any pattern desired. It's almost exactly what they now do using plastics and metal to create everything from a child's toy to very complex models for architects and engineers.

Transferring this capability to printing out a new kidney is obviously much more complicated. The materials being used are fragile.

"The mechanical process isn't all that complicated. The tricky part is the materials, which are biological in nature," said Mike Titsch, editor-in-chief of 3D Printer World, which covers the industry. "It isn't like 3D printing of plastic or metal. Plastic doesn't die if you leave it sitting on an open-air shelf at room temperature for too long."

The biomass used to create the parts would come from the person in need. Cells are removed from the body, allowed to grow in a lab, and then put into the printer, which would lay out the material in the pattern desired. This has already been done in a limited fashion, with the best-known case being that of a two-year-old Illinois girl who had a new windpipe grown and implanted. This procedure did not use a 3D printer to create the new trachea, but the process itself used the same type of biomass that a printer would.

Being able to create homegrown body parts would solve several of the vexing problems facing doctors. First is the dearth of donated organs. A person on the list for a new lung or liver could wait for years, and unfortunately die before one becomes available. The use of the person's own cells would also mitigate the problem of organ rejection and the need for the patient to remain on drugs for their entire lives to stop their body from rejecting its new part.

There also are other potential uses for these organs. New drugs could be tested on these organs, instead of on animals, giving researchers a much more accurate idea if the drug is working.

In another way, the current crop of 3D printers already on the market has already benefited those needing replacement body parts. The 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot has a program called Robohand where it can build an inexpensive prosthesis. Instead of having to pay $40,000 for a prosthesis, it costs just $5. This is certainly an important point for anyone in need, but the company's CEO, Bre Pettis, said it is truly a boon for children, who over the course of their lives will outgrow their prosthesis and need a replacement.

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