New 3-D printing technology is giving hope to medical patients who need to replace and repair body parts and organs. Creating organs through the use of a patient's own cells in many cases, this 3-D printing technology — known as "bioprinting" — is a promising new industry in the scientific community.

The 3-D printing industry has been around for almost 20 years, but is coming to light now as many scientific companies compete for lucrative grants and awards to be among the first to replicate human organ, such as a liver, scientists say.

"Three-dimensional printing of organs is in its infancy, but holds great promise," said Dean Goddette, Ph.D., president of Biogroup Consulting of San Diego. "In the same way that 3-D printing is changing manufacturing, someday 3-D printing of organs and tissues could revolutionize patient care."

Goddette said that while we won't see a human heart being reproduced anytime soon, there are specific parts of organs that are ripe for the 3-D printing technology in the not-too-distant future.

"Right now the technology is in its infancy," he said. "But obvious targets include parts of the skeletal system, bone, cartilage and other systems such as skin or blood vessels."

Remarkable advances have been made in the "creation" of human tissue. There have been implants of skin grown in the lab, as well as bladder sections and trachea — all made possible through bioprinting.

Among some of the remarkable advances:

  • San Diego-based Organovo has been an investor darling as the company raised tens of millions of dollars promoting the benefits of its leading bioprinting technology.
  • Researchers in Australia created a 3-D BioPen (see video above) that inserts regenerative stem cells and cartilage into damaged bone.
  • Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Illinois created a 3-D electronic membrane (see video below) that is worn on the heart and keeps it beating.
  • Scientists at the University of Liverpool are creating synthetic skin through use of a 3-D printer that is designed to match the qualities of the human recipient.

The 3-D printing technology offers precise placement of cells and cellular material in arranging the layers of tissue. The technology also increases the speed of the process and eliminates human error.

The scientific community believes the new process will be able to deliver entire organs, such as kidneys, hearts and livers 15 years from now.

"It's not going to be immediate," Goddette said. "They're doing some great work with bone, embedding substance and creating a structure."

Bones actually are organs and have cells in them and are a great target for the technology.

While there is hope on the horizon, there is the continual and age-old predicament: Compatibility. As with any human-to-human transplant, there is the real issue of tissue rejection by the host.

But scientists are hopeful that as bioprinting grows, human hosts will be able to bear the new addition to their bodies.

"Like stocking your own blood before a surgery, patients will be able to have their own cells to create, for example, skin that can be used on their own body," Goddette said. "Bioprinting has developed into a very interesting arena for the scientific community and for the public."