Several years ago, a relative of mine needed a liver transplant. While she did ultimately receive one, she was one of the lucky ones, but the wait was far too long. Sadly, she never fully recovered after the transplant and died a few months later. I thought then (and still think) if she had been able to get a transplant when she needed it, she might have lived. There is an organ shortage the world wide, but it is particularly acute in the United States because our medical system makes organ donation an ‘opt-in’ that ill and injured people’s families aren’t prepared to deal with. Social scientists and ethicists are still working on that problem, but maybe someday we won’t need donated organs, we’ll be able to 3-D print them.
This is a very, very early step towards someday being able to manufacture tissues and organs. They are just figure out how to do this. But the prospect of being able to manufacture tissue in this way is a huge leap forward. Of course, no one is going to be printing off a heart in the next year. But the potential benefits here are enormous. Skin grafts for burn victims might be one early application, but kidneys and livers are the real prize. Organ trading is illegal in every country on earth, but it’s virtually impossible to prevent very wealthy people from paying people, often uneducated people in third world countries, to ‘donate’ a kidney. I’m not saying that this will democratize access to healthcare – but I do think that this is an area where the natural scarcity leads to vastly, vastly unequal access and outcomes. ANYTHING that can move the needle is welcome, and long overdue.
A good friend of mine is a pretty active hobbyist 3-D printer. He has two of the things – and sometimes both of them are even fully assembled and working! What isn’t often discussed in all the hype about 3-D printing is just how difficult the things are to use. He spends ages tinkering with temperatures(for the extruder and the build platform), the extruder flow rates, the slice sizes, and the fill patterns whenever he tries to print a new design. It usually takes him at least 5, if not 10 attempts to get a usable print. The fact is, 3-D printing is still very much in it’s infancy. That’s not to say it’s not going to change our world, I just think it’s going to be more stuff like this 3-D printed skull than home-made AR-15 lowers.
And that’s still really cool! A medical implant that is perfectly scaled and shaped to the body of the person who’s receiving it. That may not be the at-home revolution that a lot of people are dreaming about, but even customization on this level has the possibility of improving a lot of lives. And have you heard of Shapeways?
It looks like it’s just an Etsy for 3-D printed stuff, but it’s actually much more than that. If you have a design, you can commission a print from Shapeways. If you want to, you can upload it to their site for sale to other people who want your design. So far, jewelry seems really popular, which makes sense. The power of the 3-D printing is in the customization it allows. It’s never going to make much sense to print out your own… Legos at home rather than buying them in a shop, but how cool would it be to be able to design your own Lego set, have it custom made, and have it shipped to your home?