3D printing in the life sciences

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Prototype of a gel bioprinter generating a tube that can be implanted for controlled drug release (video)

With technical improvements and increased affordability, 3D printing is fast gaining importance in the life science. Although the hope for printing replacement tissues and organs for the thousands of patients languishing on organ donor waiting lists has been overblown, significant advances have been made. Apart from the use in medicine, 3D printing is coming into use to make custom lab equipment and models of biomolecules.

3D printing molecules & cells

  • 2000 - first pilot experiments with modified inkjet printers
Boland & colleagues attempt to deposit proteins & cells in 2D patterns
  • 2002 - artificial kidney (not functional) by Wake Forest University School of Medicine
It is occasionally claimed (for example in the timeline above) that a working kidney was 3D printed in 2002. Cells were indeed 3D printed but the organ was not functional since it lacked working blood supply and urine drainage.
  • 2004 - Forgacs & colleagues develop cell droplet printing (bioink)
Nozzles much wider than those of an inkjet allow for 3D deposition (circles & tubes) of clusters of cells with support of a gel. This technology is the basis of the company Organovo.
  • 2006 - Atala & colleagues present a ground-breaking trial of bladder repair using 3D prints
In 7 patients with bladder problems, cells are taken, grown in culture, put on a bladder-shaped collagen and polyglycolic acid scaffold, and re-implanted into the patients reducing bladder leakage during the mean 4 year follow up (Atala06).
  • 2012 - sugar scaffold for cell structuring
Jordan Miller & colleagues develop a method to use 3D printed to scaffold cells (Miller12)
  • 2014 - 3D printed slices of liver tissue for testing
Organovo delivers the first 3D printed slices of liver tissue for preclinical testing to pharmaceutical companies

3D printing models of biomolecules

  • 1980s - early discoveries and the first 3D printers
After several discoveries in the 80s, the first 3D printer become available at the end of the decade (see the timeline of 3D printing technology).
The open design, collaborative RepRap project sets out to create a cheap 3D printer that can create most of its onw parts (RepRap at the Wikipedia).
MakerBot Industries start a repositories for digital 3D designs including many biomolecules (Wikipedia)
The NIH launches a public website to exchange scientific models for 3D printing [1].

See also