Say What?! …3D-printed meat products might be headed our way?!

“3D bio-printing” is an emerging type of technology that allows for artificial cellular reconstruction.  At this point you’re probably taken aback…say what?!  That sounds like some largely futuristic technology, the likes of which you might find in use by aliens, right? Think again; 3D bioprinting is already here and is being developed and refined even as we speak.  You could say that we’ve moved one step closer toward a form of “replicator” technology, similar to what was featured in the Sci-fi series, Star Trek.

How is this possible, you ask?  Well, we already know what 3D printers are capable of doing; they can be used to create nearly anything you can think of, from medical implants to solid mechanical objects…the possibilities are endless.  However, these are inanimate objects constructed through additive processes, and are definitely not living tissue.  So the question is, how do you build artificial cellular masses?  In a process called “computerized adaptive manufacturing”, companies like Organovo are spearheading brave new approaches to physically creating living cells.  In essence, computers and software are used to quantify the data needed to process construction from raw materials.

Think about it – your cells are composed of base elements like Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc…  Given this reality, doesn’t it make perfect sense that machines might be able to construct cellular tissues from readily available elements?  All in all, this process isn’t much different from other forms of 3D printing, although one might argue that it is much more complex and infinitely intricate.  However, we mustn’t exclude the possibility that cells might eventually be created using other materials.  Take this story for example; Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow used metal to create lifelike cells instead of carbon!  Needless to say, it’s unclear just how far this type of approach might take us when combined with 3D printing technology.  One might even argue that this could very well lead to the formation of an entirely new field dealing with the synthesis of organic structures with that of denser materials and robotics.

Naturally, there are (currently) several direct applications for this technology, each with its own focus, problems to deal with and specific gains.  Most obviously, the ability to simply “print” replicated meat products like chicken or beef offers a great opportunity for the entire human population (likewise, this is good news for the animals that would become dinner).    There is a problem with this though – it’s too expensive a process at the moment to carry out on a massive scale.  However, as with all human endeavors; eventually, some individual or group will discover a way to rectify the costs and make it somewhat economical.

Perhaps the most stunning use for the technology however is its potential medical applications.  Quite simply, 3D bioprinting might soon allow for doctors to simply “print out” new (perfectly matched and compatible) organs and body parts.  In other words, new types of bio-compatible skin grafts could emerge which would allow doctors to quickly (and seamlessly) heal deep wounds, cuts and even burns.  Moreover, diseased or cancerous organs could be easily replaced with new ones.  The possibilities are truly endless when you think about it; if / when this technology becomes more “mainstream”, affordable and accessible, it will likely revolutionize modern medicine in ways that we could never have even dreamed.

Additionally, being able to create artificial human tissues and organs leads to the distinct possibility of newer, more advanced forms of medical research emerging (in the very near future).  For instance, just think of how such an approach could revolutionize medical research for new drugs.  Similarly, imagine how much easier it would be for scientists to devise new approaches to treating specific diseases (without the moral qualms associated with human or animal clinical trials).

In the meantime, certification in 3D printing technology is advisable to those employed in the IT community (as well as anyone else that’s both interested and capable of grasping its many potential uses).  Once 3D bioprinting becomes widely known and available companies and businesses are going to be rushing to find new ways to implement it.  Given this distinct possibility, it’s worth venturing a guess that some of the best future careers are going to be centered on all forms of 3D printing.

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