If we figure out how to 3D print human organs, how can technology ever top that?

By James Robinson , written on July 2, 2014

From The News Desk

3D printed human flesh sits at the very endpoint (almost) of how we can use technology to literally hack life.

The completely individualized nature of 3D printing -- where things aren’t so much copied as recreated -- has already been incredibly useful in the medical industry: parents can make $150 prosthetics for their children, doctors can practice incredibly specialized surgeries on exact models of their patient’s organs, 15-year old girls are given the capacity to walk again with bone transplants tailored to the exact dimensions of their leg.

But actual, living tissue, out of the nozzle of a 3D printer is several steps in holy sh** past any of the above. And that's where we're heading.

A super team of researchers from University of Sydney, MIT, Harvard and Stanford published a study this week detailing how they’d overcome key practical problems in the race to 3D print organic human material. The issue up until now is that your tissue can be recreated, but life can’t. The complex vascular networks of blood vessels that give us our living X-factor have proved too hard to create. (Although that hasn’t stopped companies like Nestegg Bio from trying.) Without these, human flesh dies.

Researchers in this study used a bioprinter to create a network of fine, interlocking fibers that they coated with the cells from the human body that line the walls of our interior blood vessels. They then added in a protein to the mix and cooked the whole thing in light. They then took out the fibers, leaving a network of cells behind, which were growing, becoming more specialized and showed all of the tell tale signs of actual life.

If you think about it, it's really just super next-level paper mache.

The thought of being able to replace human organs without having to rely on someone else to hand over a kidney or die first would be world changing. Or you can take it even further than that, replacing limbs with living prosthetics (NASA has been working in space to 3D print bone material). This isn’t the first development down this road -- a San Diego company has been teasing the first 3D printed liver all year -- but it is arguably the biggest.

Not that it’ll happen soon. We’ll be using a system of Google and Uber-owned self-driving pods to get around before we’re 3D printing our own organs. But there are early implications of these developments on things like drug testing that could be incredibly useful sooner.

It feels like there’s two completely valid reactions to this news: While the medical possibilities of this are huge, there are ethical implications of being able to create disembodied human life that will be uniquely terrifying.

If the inevitable destiny of the technological revolutions of the last few centuries was for us to be able to play God with our own humanity, this frontier could be our final chapter. How much further can you go pass this? Once we're 3D-printing human organs, how will you ever be impressed by technological innovation again?

[Image via University of Liverpool Faculty of Health and Life Sciences]