It has been called the “poor man’s replicator,” but since the first tentative effort at additive manufacturing (aka 3-D printing) by Hideo Kodama of Japan’s Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in 1981, the real-world technology already has advanced to capabilities rivaling the Star Trek series’ ubiquitous replicator.
The first real boost came in 1984, when Chuck Hull of 3D Systems, Inc. used Kodama’s work as the base on which he created a prototype for stereolithography, a process in which layers of material – at the time, limited to photopolymers – were shaped using ultraviolet lasers. In subsequent years, the process was used on other plastics, then metals, paper, sand – even chocolate. And where early items were bland in terms of color, the process grew to allow the use of multiple materials and multiple colors in the creation of a single item.
One possibility immediately put forth was eventual 3-D printing of skin grafts for burn patients, rather than using slices of healthy skin from unaffected areas of the patient’s own body, a forerunner to using living cells to bio-print replacement tissues and organs.
Originally pursued by industry to build rapid and more accurate prototypes, 3-D printing has evolved to produce the final product, as well. The materials available have grown more numerous, the types of products produced more diverse and the printers both more capable and dramatically less costly with each passing year.
Led by military medical requirements, that now includes “printing” bone, teeth, entire jaw structures, and even skin. In August 2015, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first 3-D-printed prescription pill for consumer use, an anti-seizure medication for epileptics.
Three months earlier, L’Oréal USA, the largest subsidiary of the global beauty products giant, announced a partnership with Organovo Holdings, Inc. to leverage the latter’s proprietary NovoGen BioprintingTM Platform and L’Oréal’s expertise with human skin to develop 3-D-printed skin tissue for product evaluation and advanced research.
“We developed our technology incubator to uncover disruptive innovations across industries that have the potential to transform the beauty business,” Guive Balooch, global vice president of L’Oréal’s Technology Incubator, said at the time.
“Organovo has broken new ground with 3-D bioprinting, an area that complements L’Oréal’s pioneering work in the research and application of reconstructed skin for the past 30 years. Our partnership will not only bring about new advanced in vitro methods for evaluating product safety and performance, but the potential for where this new field of technology and research can take us is boundless.”
One possibility immediately put forth was eventual 3-D printing of skin grafts for burn patients, rather than using slices of healthy skin from unaffected areas of the patient’s own body, a forerunner to using living cells to bio-print replacement tissues and organs. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) already has successfully used its 3-D printer to produce ear and finger bone scaffolds and even a prototype kidney, although the latter was nonfunctional because it lacked the intricate inner cellular structures required for a functioning kidney.
In an article written for the February 2015 issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine, Institute Director Anthony Atala and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. James Yoo said they used the same “recipe” previously employed to engineer human organs and tissue by hand to produce bone, cartilage, blood vessels, cardiac tissue, and heart valves for clinical use.
“The ultimate goal is to print complex organs such as livers and kidneys for transplant and to create composite tissues made up of skin, muscle, tendon, nerves, bone and blood vessels for reconstructive surgery,” they wrote. “The advantages of printing tissues, rather than engineering them by hand, are many.”