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LaterLife TechnoFile

Modern technology has so much scope and power to dramatically improve our lives. However it also changes at an incredibly fast rate, and keeping abreast of what's out there, and how it can help you, is a full time job!

So to accompany the 150+ articles in Jackie Sherman's YoucandoIT Question & Answer series we are introducing a new article series: The LaterLife TechnoFile

Technofile will help you to understand some of the bewildering array of technology available today, and possibly help to keep up with your grandchildren!

Bio-Printing: What it is and what does it mean?


We discover what Bio-Printing is and what it could imply for the future…

In recent years there has been a lot of excitement surrounding the uses of 3D Printing. 3D Printing is a method of designing an object or project on a computer. This design is then sent to a specialised 3D printer, which literally prints the physical object. This can be done in a couple of different ways but a common method, “Additive Manufacturing” prints thousands of layers of plastic resin one on top of the other until the desired shape is formed. 3D printers are helping Designers and Engineers to create better products as they enable cheaper, quicker prototypes and more tests to be run at lower costs. This results in a better tested, final design being used. Although not without controversy, as the current debate about printed guns demonstrates, 3D printing has enormous potential.

One area that demonstrates both that potential, and equally the controversy, is Bio-Printing. Currently in the Research and Development phase, Bio-Printing aims to make custom body parts from organic materials in the same way that 3D printers create objects. The fact that organs can potentially be made to order has really exciting implications for the medical world.

Creating made-to-measure and personalised organs offers tremendous advantages in better health care, better quality of life and longer life expectancy. If the technology lives up to its promise!

  • Not only could the exact size and shape of a replacement organ be considered but, if grown using materials cultured from an individual’s own cells, a printed organ wouldn’t get rejected – the leading cause of organ transplant failure.
  • Waiting times for transplants could be drastically reduced and the reliance on finding a donor substantially diminished, if not eliminated entirely.
  • Animal testing may become completely replaced in future years by bio printed substitutes. Not only is it good from an animal rights point of view, but results would be more accurate as drugs could be tested on exact replicas of the organs being targeted.
  • There will be opportunities for better surgery results as medical students could practise on a Bio-Printed copy of the organs they might be operating on in the future, addressing the less well-known (and slightly macabre issue!) that medical colleges are running short of cadavers.
  • Aside from improving existing surgery, new surgical methods could be developed without risking patients’ wellbeing. For instance key-hole surgery on a heart that has been Bio-Printed before actually carrying out the surgery for real.
  • Looking to the far future perhaps there is scope for entire limbs to be printed, the opportunity to give someone a replacement leg as well as printing skin grafts etc. all without fear of the patient’s body rejecting the transplant.

And actually the future of Bio-Printing isn’t something we will necessarily have to wait long for. Kevin Shakesheff, (director of the Wolfson Centre for Steam Cells, Tissue Engineering and Modelling and the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Hub in Acellular Technologies) believes that a printed heart is possible within 10 years. “The big issue is money,” Shakesheff told Wired.co.uk. “To do this in ten years needs a massive amount of funding and the money needs to be spent properly and quickly.” The possibility of printed hearts, and other organs, within the next ten years has many implications for the healthcare available in the near future, and opportunities for improving our own health as well as our loved ones.

However, the constraints on the speed at which Bio-Printing is being developed are not just about funding and resources, but also about ethics. As more people become aware of Bio-Printing and what it could mean concerns are growing about the lack of a coherent ethical framework governing it. There are arguments about people being humans not robots with parts to be replaced, and the threat of a two-tier existence where only the rich can afford to become a ‘perfect human’. The possibility of using the technology to create a cloned human, with all the ethical difficulties that surround that, has also been raised.

Arguably, such a potentially powerful tool in medical sciences should be widely available to improve the standard of living for all. With the NHS, the UK has a major advantage in ensuring equality of access but for other countries there are major concerns about further extending existing ‘two-tier’ healthcare systems. However with so much debate as to whether Bio-Printing is good or bad ethically; how do you, or should you, stop the research into a technology which is already demonstrating positive results and offering such incredible potential?

Readers' Poll

The Results are in!

What do you think about Bio-Printing - do the potential benefits outweigh the ethical concerns?

94% of you said Yes and 6% disagreed and said No.

Here are some of your comments:

  • Yes - It sounds fantastic! Who would have thought this was possible! It is unlikely I will see the benefits but my children and certainly my grandchildren will. Wonderful stuff!
  • Yes - There is absolutely no question about this. The benefits for those in need of this technology are enormous to say nothing of the social benefits for the families. Dont let questions of ethics stand in the way else nothing will happen and their will be many needless deaths.
  • Yes - If there is demand the price will go down. I watched an item recently where a woman received a boi-printed hip which fitted perfectly because her own hip was scanned and an exact replica produced and in a material that lessened infection. This has to be good. This is real progress that should be encouraged.
  • Yes - No waiting lists as such - would save a lot of lives in the long run. I would try it (a new hip)
  • No - It probably cannot be stopped but the ethics must be considered and sensible legislation drawn up.

If you want to know more about 3D Printing and Bio-Printing:

Why not visit the Science Museum and view the ‘3D: Printing the Future exhibition.’

3D Printing Buzz keeps up with all innovations across 3D and Bio-Printing.

How Stuff Works, a go to for scientific explanations, has an in-depth article about Bio Printers breaking down the working parts.

Previous Article:

7 of the Best Free Healthcare Related Apps

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