Contributions of engineering to medicine have helped improve people’s health. For example, medical imaging technology has helped save many lives by enabling non-invasive diagnostic procedures which specify the existence and scope of a number of diseases.
In the past two decades, engineers have contributed to the development and improvement of three-dimensional (3D) printing technology that is currently forming opportunities in various domains including manufacturing. The technology has enabled production of complex 3D structures from computer-aided design (CAD) models by way of printing. Over the past decade, enhancement in function, reduction in price, and increase in simplicity of use have resulted in a substantial growth in the applications of the 3D printing technology.
Nowadays through the efforts of scientists and engineers, we are witnessing the rise of an offshoot of the 3D printing technology, which is referred to as 3D bioprinting, with incredible potential applications in medicine. The 3D bioprinting process employs the principles derived from tissue engineering which employs self-organising properties of cells, and direct printing which makes use of recent advances in micro/nano fabrication technology, to facilitate automated layer-by-layer placement of biocompatible materials, cells, and other necessary elements into complex 3D living tissues and ultimately organs. Such constructs will be suitable for replacement of diseased or injured human tissues, and may be also used to maintain or enhance tissue function.
3D bioprinting can be achieved by using a number of direct-write technologies. One form of 3D bioprinting involves extruding biocompatible materials, cells, and other elements through deposition micro-nozzles on-board of low- and high-temperature heads whose position and function are precisely controlled through sensing and actuating mechanisms, control algorithms, and interface tools.
Although 3D bioprinting is still at its early stage of development, it has already produced some success in printing different experimental tissues and drug delivery implants among others. As an example, medical imaging was used to scan a patient’s injured head, and the resulting 3D CAD model was utilised to print a customised skull patch for the patient.
In spite of the reported success in experimental printing of different tissues, to achieve the potential benefits of 3D bioprinting, there exist several hurdles that must be overcome in the coming years including in-vivo compatibility, functionality, cost, among others. Moreover, the technology has driven concerns in relation to ethical issues such as safety and accessibility. Nonetheless, due to the incredible potential applications of this technology, extensive research is being conducted towards tackling such hurdles.
A number of Australian Universities are conducting research in 3D bioprinting. Deakin University houses rapid prototyping and 3D printing facilities which allow solutions to be generated from concept to manufacture. Among the 3D printing equipment is a 3D bioprinter that prints biomaterials and cells using 3D CAD models created by designers or produced from patients’ medical imaging data. Supported by the research and teaching facilities in engineering, materials, and medicine, a strategic research and teaching capacity is being formed in the interdisciplinary field of 3D bioprinting which has the potential to change the local healthcare industry in the coming years.
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