Not unlike 3D printing, bioprinting is able to produce structures as opposed to simple images as is the case with traditional printing. However, instead of using plastic or rubber, bioprinting uses biological materials and cells formulated into bioinks.

What types of bioinks are available?

Aggregates of cells: these fuse together of their own accord once they have been printed.

Water-based gels: these contain cells that are printed onto structures. The polymers within the gel can be joined together for stronger shapes and can come from both natural and synthetic sources.

Who can benefit from bioprinting?

The healthcare industry and its patients stand to reap the benefits of bioprinting, as this new technology may be able to help repair damage to tissues, cells and organs. Although the technology is still being developed, one day it could be possible to print organs in their entirety rather than just parts of them. This would be revolutionary as it would reduce the need for organ donations and allow many more people to receive the care they need. At the moment, regenerating damaged tissue after surgery or repairing parts of a heart attack patient’s valves seem more achievable.

Is 4D bioprinting on the cards?

Although not fully realised yet, researchers are looking into the possibility of 4D bioprinting. The additional dimension referred to is time, meaning that structures created could carry on developing after their initial conception. This technology could make printing blood vessels possible by allowing professionals to mould and shape the cells themselves after printing.

Potential issues

Bioprinting might seem like it’s well on the way to making an appearance in hospitals, but there are still many concerns to be addressed. One of these is the uncertainty surrounding the strength of the structures and whether they’ll withstand the pressures the human body will exert upon them. Another revolves around the fact that some tissues, and especially entire organs, are very complex and must be constructed precisely in order to function. Printing technology likely will not be able to perform to such high standards for at least a few more decades.

Photo: Making 3-D Bioprinted Tissue by NIH-NCATS licensed under Creative Commons 4.0