Forget Organ Donation, Scientists Are Now Printing Body Parts

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Lawrence Bonassar with a printed ear.

Three-dimensional printing is a dynamic new technology that promises to revolutionize how we manufacture and create things. Still in its early stages of development, it's already being used to make chocolate, guns, and even body parts. The technology is even being employed by ordinary (if technologically-inclined) people who are building their own 3D printers at home.

Three-dimensional printing has been around for awhile, so what's new about it? According to Lawrence Bonassar, a professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell, it has to do with printing living tissue:

"We think that the real leap forward here has been…in figuring out how to make that toner or ink out of living tissue, out of living materials, that contain cells within them."

Bonassar and some colleagues recently printed a real, human ear. And while you might expect to learn that they built a framework and then attached living cells to it, they were actually printing with real human cells. Cartilage lends itself to this sort of printing because its creators don't have to worry as much about supplying the tissue with nutrients via blood — cartilage naturally depends less on a blood supply. Of course, it's still alive.

Max Lobovsky is the founder of FormLabs, a start-up company that is creating a more affordable professional 3D printer.

A 3D printer from MakerBot Industries. (Courtesy MakerBot)