Welcome to the Sound of Science on WNIJ. I’m Jeremy Benson from NIU STEM Outreach.
Jeremy: Today’s question comes from Ryan. He asks “How do you make a 3D printed heart that actually works?” To help me answer this, I’ve brought in recent NIU graduate and 3D printing expert Mackenzie Thompson. So, Mackenzie, let me start by asking if it’s even possible to print with things other than plastic.
Mackenzie: 3D printing is another term for additive manufacturing, which means we build something starting with nothing. 3D printing technology has come a long way in the past few years and we can manufacture a much wider variety of objects than ever before.
Jeremy: I hear there are even 3D printers that print houses from concrete. A tiny house with a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and porch can be printed for less than $10,000 and finished in under 24 hours!
Mackenzie: Yup, the possibilities of 3D printing with traditional materials are huge. However, human tissue remains a challenge. Very recently, scientists have been able to create implants that slowly break down as the body fills it with cells and blood. The “ink” being printed is made up of a gel containing a bunch of cells that are needed to grow the tissue. The gel helps to spread out the nutrients and oxygen from the blood, which fosters cell growth. The gel disintegrates over time as the cells replicate and replace old tissue.
Jeremy: What do we do with 3D printed tissues right now?
Mackenzie: 3D printed tissues fulfil so many roles! For example, some medical tests for new drugs and procedures can be performed on replicated tissue instead of on real people. Or we can integrate electronics with 3D printed tissues and create working organs like tongues or ears. Or we can grow skin for patients with prosthetics or those who need skin grafts!
Jeremy: And hearts? Can we 3D print hearts!?
Mackenzie: Not yet. Right now, the tissues being printed can’t perform complex functions or fully interact with the nervous system. But the biggest take away is that we’re getting closer and closer. Less than a hundred years ago we couldn’t successfully transplant kidneys, and now who knows how long it will be until we have a printers for organs in our local hospitals?
Jeremy: Wow! This has been the Sound of Science on WNIJ.
Mackenzie: Where you learn something new everyday