Just last week, a teenage boy was the recipient of the first 3D-printed nose transplant ever performed in the United States, and it looks as if he’ll have company soon.
The process works by first taking a small sampling of cells from the patient’s cartilage, then growing them in an incubator over a period of weeks. Meanwhile, the shape of the patient’s absent body part is scanned. The cells are then combined with a liquid formula to create a jelly-like substance that is then shaped into the missing limb via 3D printing, following the scan as a blueprint. Reagents are introduced to help strengthen the compound, and placed back in the incubator the structure will continue to grow.
“In simple terms, we’re trying to grow new tissue using human cells,” Professor Iain Whitaker, a consultant plastic surgeon at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital, told the BBC. “Most people have heard a lot about 3D printing and that started with traditional 3D printing using plastics and metals.”
The first goal would be to develop relatively small replacement parts like noses and ears. Eventually, the process would be refined enough to grow large bone and muscle. Depending on what happened to the person’s limb, 3D printing might completely revolutionize their treatment with research underway to use 3D-printed silicone sleeves to help guide and support nerve regrowth.
Between this and plans for a human head transplant, it doesn’t seem so far off that you’ll be able to just 3D-print a body for yourself to exact specifications like a toy factory making a G.I. Joe.