3D-printers have been used in the industry for decades in order to make prototypes. A 3D printer today normally works so that a material, for example plastic, is melted through a robotic arm, that is steered by a computer programme. The robot arm then uses the material to you could say "draw", moving in a pattern, layer by layer, so that the melted material creates a new shape.
This is a hot topic in health care research today. Ana Teixeia is an assistant professor and researcher at the Karolinska Institute. She uses 3D printers in her research.
"The main focus right now is not to make a whole heart, but to make patches of heart. So when the heart is damaged by an infarct, to actually be able to produce part of a tissue. We even call them "heart patches", to "patch up" the heart. I think it will be here in the foreseeable future," says Ana Teixeia.
At Chalmers University in Gothenburg, 3D printers are used to print out human ears. Paul Gatenholm is a professor of chemistry and bio-technique at Chalmers. He hopes that it will soon be possible to transplant cartilage to people who need it.
"We hope that we will be able to bio-print cartilage with patients own cells and thereby repair knee-injuries and osteoarthiritis," he says.
There are two ways for a 3D-printer to make organs.
Either you use it to print out a model in a plastic that the body can break down, and then you attach cells to it, and let them grow, like on a climbing frame. This technique is already in use to produce bronchus, or respiratory airways.
Another way is to use cells combined with a kind of gel as the printing material itself, and thereby creating an organ that would be ready for transplant.
And in a way, ears and respiratory organs are relatively easy to make, as they don't really need blood vessels to function. A heart is a different matter. If it does not get blood pumped into it, it will die.
That is why a 3d-printed heart is still only part of the future.
"One of the major challenges of the field right now is to introduce blood supplies into this sort of tissue that you make in the lab. So then we find solutions to these problems, I think it will be a really big breakthrough for this type of approach in regenerative medicine," says Ana Teixeira at the Karolinska Institute.