Bio-printing: the next Applied Materials?

Last Fall, I wrote about advances in design, materials, and fabrication technologies combining to place the “printing” of intelligent, microprocessor-controlled products within reach in a post titled “Print Your Pet.”

Another tiny piece of this puzzle was announced publicly earlier this month when HP reported recent progress in the development of memristors, a new class of diminutive switches capable of replacing transistors as computer chips shrink closer to the atomic scale.

“Our brains are made of memristors,” said Dr. Leon O. Chua, referring to the function of biological synapses. An electrical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who first conceived of memristors in 1971, he continued in the New York Time article on the subject, “We have the right stuff now to build real brains.”

Speaking of real brains, what about real flesh? On this topic, a fascinating update on the subject of human tissue printing was reported by CNET in their write-up of the San Diego venture, Organovo. While still in early clinical trials, the potential is for Organovo’s specialized 3D printers to make it possible for doctors to fabricate new human tissue based on a patient’s own cells.

What appears to make Organovo’s approach novel is the patented, proprietary printing devices, that are expected to price in the hundreds of thousands of dollars when they reach FDA-approved, commercial-ready stage, not unlike the fabrication machinery for semiconductors from companies like Tokyo Electron or Applied Materials.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department – as frequently happens with advanced, experimental technologies – has been pushing the envelope of human tissue printing with work at the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s Wake Forest lab. Watch this Youtube video from LabTV to observe how the Lab’s R&D staff has repurposed off-the-shelf inkjet printers to essentially create “rapid prototypes” of human skin.

The immediate target objective is a significant advance in the ability to respond to the needs of burn patients, by accelerating their healing and improving their recovery, physically and cosmetically. But, the over-the-horizon tease is the potential to fabricate larger and more complex biological constructs.

Okay, admittedly, we’re still a long ways off from Robocop or the Terminator. However, advances like these in biomechanics, as well as other intersection points of software, engineering, and life sciences, seem to be on pace to produce significant life-enhancing (and sim-life creating?) results over the next generation.