Printing Life

Article co-written with Maryam Nabavi.
While Maker culture continues to emerge as a dominant force in manufacturing and consumer interests, far bigger implications of the movement are on the horizon. What happens when we begin to apply the same DIY, hacker mentality to a field as sensitive as health? How much can we accomplish? Can 3D printing play a role in the health space? Can we play with God with machines?
In short… yes. And that’s both really cool and really scary.
Far from being a thing of science fiction 20 years out, many scientists, engineers, medical professionals, artists, inventors and innovators are riding the bleeding edge of this movement at the convergence of health and 3D printing. While many efforts are in their infancy, interesting results are already arising and many more are being theorized. Below are four examples of areas that have begun to explore the potential for printing life.
Printing Designer Drugs
Before diving into printing an eyeball or two, we first need to learn how to print the very basic building blocks of matter. Taking the principles of 3D printing, we can craft and combine appropriate doses of different reagents to initiate various chemical reactions and produce controlled masses of complex molecules. Imagine a finely-tuned, computer-controlled chemistry set that, with the right components at our disposal, could create just about any chemical compound to produce the drug of our choosing.
One can almost hear the meth cookers salivating.
However, the drug trade isn’t the only community excited by this prospect. Professor Lee Cronin at Glasgow University has been using an early prototype, hacked version of an open-source 3D printer to create sequenced reactions and build up increasingly complex molecules in any shape or size. The beauty, Cronin points out, is that since most drugs are only formed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, a very small number of reagents can enable a near infinite number of drug possibilities.
In the near-term, Cronin’s team is attempting to print relatively simple drugs such as ibuprofen. However, in the longer term, this technology could completely abolish the pharmacist model of drug acquisition, democratize essential medicine availability around the world and create an entirely new form of piracy that should scare the shit out of big pharma.
Inkjet Prosthetics
Perhaps one of the most obvious applications of 3D printing technology is in the printing of artificial body parts. Traditional prosthetics, while functional and exceptionally useful, have often lacked a crucial element of personalization and design – factors all too important when you consider just how personal an item it is. By leveraging 3D printing technology, new artificial limbs can be customized to nearly any shape, size, pattern and material to align the limb with the needs of the user.
Led by Scott SummitBespoke Innovations in San Francisco is a company that uses 3D technology to print custom fairings – the coverings that surround an existing prosthetic leg – that can be made to match an individual’s body shape and personalized to give a flare of their own personality. Whether covered in chrome for the Harley rider, strong patterned mesh for the athlete or intricate floral and tattoo etchings for a night on the town, Summit’s work has done incredible things for amputees by both raising their comfort and confidence as well as changing perceptions of how society views their prosthetic.
In the near future, Summit envisions going beyond simple coverings and using 3D printing technology to fabricate entire limbs that no longer mask the rough designs of traditional prosthetics, but instead integrate them completely into a personalized, aesthetically gorgeous piece of art. However, true innovation may come when we stop printing limbs in plastic and metal. 
The fact that we are living longer lives means that we will need to generate not only prosthetics, but also regenerate tissue and solid organs as we grow old. In the past 10 years the number ofpatients requiring organs has doubled and yet the number of transplants has barely gone up. Regenerative Medicine may be the solution to this crisis.
Previous processes to regenerate biological tissues involved borrowing a small piece of patient tissue and using scaffolding (in some cases a failed organ) to grow the organ outside of the patient’s body. The patient’s cells would then be used to code the scaffolding’s structure one layer at the time. The organ is then placed inside an oven with human-like temperature conditions to be completed.
A new tissue printing technology proposes scanning a patient’s wound while they lay in their bed and printing cells overtop to heal the wound. If this process were automated, it could potentially solve the issue of tele-operation in remote areas. However, the real challenge lies in reproducing complex organs such as kidneys. 3D printing technology has begun to show promise in this realm. In this process, a patient’s organ is scanned using advanced sensing technologies before information is sent to a printer to construct a patient-specific, solid organ, layer by layer.
With time, bioprinters will become more accurate and affordable. High-resolution printers will enable us to print at a cellular level and enable more complex and customized organs. In addition, this technology will create a contentious new issue around body hacking. If we can successfully print a kidney, why can’t we use the exterior of our body to host and grow new membranes and organs?
In short, if you’ve ever wished for an extra hand or eyes in the back of your head, be careful what you wish for.
Composite Ingredients
To date, printing candies or having a photo printed in edible ink on a cake is about as far as 3D printing has advanced in the food industry. However, the future of this spaces opens to a world of interesting edibles beyond simply decorative presentations.
Researchers at the Cornell Creative Machine Labhave developed an open-source 3D food printer, Fab@home, which they hope will one day be as common as the microwave or blender. So far, the team has produced a space shuttle-shaped scallop nugget and cakes that reveal a hidden message when sliced open.
“With most 3D food printing concepts today, the inks are the foods themselves in fluid form – think molten chocolate, cheese or cookie dough. Foods that can’t be readily extruded from a syringe such as meats and vegetables are ground and mixed with other liquids to create novel food-inks.” Says Jeffrey Ian Lipton, the head of the project at CCML.
But the CCML folks are thinking beyond these achievements. The group has also developed a process to allow the printer to change the texture of a food being printed. Controlling the texture of the food at a fine level means being able to alter the surface and consistency of food at different parts to “get things to more evenly steam or deep fry, or hold more juices inside.”
However, the future of printed edibles holds even greater opportunities according to the executive chef at the Moto Restaurant in Chicago. “Foods that aren’t considered ‘food’ will become food in the future.” Perhaps printing at the molecular level will allow us to develop new flavors and forms of food by varying their chemical structures. While the idea of eating HP Ramen or a paper-thin printed pizza sounds like a fancy and futuristic meal, this new technology has the potential to transform our relationship with food and improve our wellbeing by making healthier, tastier, more interesting food. I, for one, would eat space shuttle nuggets all day even if they were made of celery puree.