In his gory time-travel science fiction novel Timeline (1999), Michael Crichton envisaged a three dimensional biological copier which copies a human being and teleports his copy to a “parallel” universe. Seems too far-fetched, isn’t it? But if engineers from Organovo (an US company specializing in Regenerative medicine) and Invetech (an Australian company specializing in automation) have their way, the 3-D Bio copier will soon be reality. The Engineers from Invetech have built a prototype machine for Organovo for printing human tissues. Just a few stem cells from the adult bone marrow are enough to start with (I hope you know why scientists are so fussy about stem cells – they can divide and differentiate or in other words can specialize itself; the same cell can be cultured into a liver cell, neuron or any cell in a human body). Droplets of these stem cells (typically a few tens of thousands) are printed along with what they technically term as a scaffold, in the same way an inkjet printer prints droplets of ink onto a white paper. A scaffold is nothing but a support structure (like a wax mould) that is used to keep the droplets in their rightful place. Once the printing process is over, the scaffold is removed after a day or two and you have the human tissue!
Bio-printing is not completely new technique. It is quite surprising to hear that already seven people are walking in our planet right now with artificial printed bladders, albeit printed using a slightly different and primitive technology. The advantage with the Organovo-Invetech machine is that the scaffolding process is quite simpler compared to the earlier machines: the scaffold is printed along with the cells while in the older process the scaffold has to be prepared beforehand. So this naturally gives the engineers a lot of maneuverability. They can start printing your kidney with your CT scan images. But wait, technology hasn’t got that far right now. We may have to wait another decade. But the good news is that it is worth the wait. The researchers believe that in future these machines will be able to print organs and tissues directly into the human body. Getting a new organ will be much easier. One doesn’t have to wait indefinitely for a donor. You can just order it to be delivered right into your body and walk out of the hospital after two days. Printing organs is one thing; making it work consistently is an altogether different challenge. The researchers at Organovo and elsewhere are working on this part of the challenge now. For the near future, we might have to satiate ourselves with superficial cosmetic applications. The machine could be used for patching up wounded and scarred skin or for mending broken tooth. Cosmetic surgeries might become less painful and your dentist will not seem ominous anymore.
Looking forward to the future, can this technology make our science fiction fantasies like teleportation come true? Or instant cloning that credulous Hollywood movies like “The Island” or “The Sixth Day” suggested? Just scan and print humans? Is it that easy? Of course, we do have some enigmatic meta-physical rhetoric like Will-the-printed-duplicates-have-souls? or how-can-you-teleport-the-soul? impeding such fantasies becoming real. But it is queer world; if you can print organs and make them work, we can expect still queerer things in future.
[Image courtesy: http://i.livescience.com/images/091229-Bioprinter-02.jpg]