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Question Your World: Can We Print Organs?

Consider the history of printing. From very early fragile letters to recent developments in modern printing, this technological journey is pretty remarkable. Modern day printers are pushing the limits of both technology and biological research. So, can they print organs yet? Learn more in this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia.

Let’s consider the history of printing. About a thousand years ago we can find the earliest relative of modern printing.Bi Sheng, a Chinese inventor, created a moveable type device comprised of porcelain units. Nearly 400 years later Johannes Gutenberg took printing to the next level with his moveable and versatile letter press. This revolutionized the world and allowed for many great changes while ushering in printing for the masses. Nearly two centuries later the type setting print technology evolved into the earliest typewriters which were later adapted and digitized into computers and viola the early electric printers started to appear. Pretty remarkable journey thus far. Recently the story of printing has taken yet another huge step.

Scientists and biologists started to take note of advances being made in 3-D printing and decided to take it to the next level. Ink is comprised of basic molecules which are about as small as human cells. Intricately detailed prints are a result of the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow Key (CMYK) printing process, the four basic colors that when combined paint our world. So, scientists took a similar approach. Cellular components, similar to the four basic colors, could be sent through 3-D bio printers to get layered and grown into organs, like a bladder constructed from its basic building blocks, one layer at a time.

This has a profound impact on the medical community. Once more research and work continues on this we could very well see 3-D printed organs be used for testing chemicals instead of live human specimens, perhaps as a standard. Another huge advantage to mastering 3-D printing would be that, if need be, you could use your own cells to grow an organ for a transplant. The added bonus there is that your body is significantly less likely to reject it as a graph vs host issue.

From a thousand years ago as porcelain units to layered organ fabrication, printing has had quite the remarkable journey. Meanwhile, ink cartridges for normal printers are still really expensive, what's up with that?

Article by Prabir Mehta Science Museum of Virginia

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