3D Bioprinting – At the Intersection of Design, Biomaterials and Life

Dirk Rodenburg discusses the benefits and potential harms of 3D bioprinting.

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Over the last few years, 3D printing has gone from a magical possibility (think: Star Trek’s “scan and replicate anything” device), to an everyday occurrence as consumer grade 3D printing devices have made their way onto the market. The 3D printer ‘builds’ an object by layering materials in a pattern. The materials used include plastic, nylon, sugar, metal and, more recently, biological tissue. The pattern is a three-dimensional blueprint that provides the 3D printer with information about the attributes of the object to be printed – shape, size, thickness, density, finish, and so on.

Clearly, 3D printing will have a significant impact on the way things are designed, produced, and distributed. One of the obvious benefits of 3D printing is that it allows for highly localized, small-scale production of goods to meet specific needs, including specific body parts. In Uganda, for example, there is now the ability to supply amputees with custom fitted prosthetics using 3D printing. However, this technology can also have worrisome outcomes. For example, it could be used to manufacture guns and other weapons from plastics and other less detectable materials using plans freely available on the Internet.

3D printer

But it is the application of 3D printing to biology – so-called bioprinting – that is likely to be the most controversial. Bioprinting is a technology that has the potential to change the way we view biological systems – from things that are unique to things that are ordinary. Although the processes for printing biological tissue are certainly far more complex than those used for printing from other materials such as plastic, in both instances the technology separates the model of the object – the source of its shape, size and density – from the object itself. The model, which describes the object in three-dimensional space, can be thought of as a mathematical representation. The notion that biological systems can be mathematically represented is not new, but 3D bioprinting is a very tangible and easily accessible expression of that relationship.

A broader acceptance of mathematical representations of biology forces all of us to confront the idea that biological systems, though complex, are knowable and can be designed, controlled and manipulated. This shift in understanding should both encourage and frighten us as we move from thinking “we’ll never be able to do that” to “we can do anything”.

Already, companies such as Autodesk and Orogonovo are partnering to exploit the design of biomaterials and life made possible by the mathematical representations of biology and the manufacturing potential of 3D bioprinting. Work in this new field raises a number of challenging ethical questions. For example, what should happen when the means for making our own biological tissue becomes a reality? More specifically, how might we regulate experimentation with these tissues? Should anyone (everyone) have access to the relevant tools?

Advocates of 3D bioprinting will want to highlight the potential benefits. For example, this technology will allow health care providers to meet rising tissue demands through the manufacture of artificial organs such as kidneys, hearts and skin. As well, this technology, in tandem with other technologies (such as bioengineering, robotics and artificial intelligence), may help with problems of environmental degradation. For example, it might be possible to print tissues that combine organic and non-organic materials to create new, non-standard biological tissues that would be more resistant to the effects of pollutants. Advocates of bioprinting might also suggest that it is both impossible and unrealistic to stop technological innovation. And, they might point to genomics as an example of an emerging technology able to provide self-regulation.

On the other hand, opponents of 3D bioprinting might suggest that the continued mathematical representation of biological systems lessens the value of all life, and potentially makes us vulnerable to the consequences of commercialism and greed. After all, humans do not have a stellar track record when it comes to anticipating and managing the consequences of new technologies.

Whichever way you lean, the rise of 3D bioprinting requires that we confront uncomfortable truths associated with biological design, an inevitable echo perhaps of the ultimate design material of life itself, DNA.

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Dirk Rodenburg is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto.

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