Just as 3-D printers have gained in popularity among hobbyists and companies who use them to create everyday objects, prototypes and spare parts (and even a crude gun), there has been a rise in interest in using similar technology in medicine. Instead of the plastics or powders used in conventional 3-D printers to build an object layer by layer, so-called bioprinters print cells, usually in a liquid or gel. The goal isn’t to create a widget or a toy, but to assemble living tissue.
At labs around the world, researchers have been experimenting with bioprinting, first just to see whether it was possible to push cells through a printhead without killing them (in most cases it is), and then trying to make cartilage, bone, skin, blood vessels, small bits of liver and other tissues. There are other ways to try to “engineer” tissue — one involves creating a scaffold out of plastics or other materials and adding cells to it. In theory, at least, a bioprinter has advantages in that it can control the placement of cells and other components to mimic natural structures.
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