Welcoming our gobsmacking (if mildly creepy) overlords.

Back when I was a wee lass and imagining what the future would be like, I think I didn’t think about it very hard. Flying cars, à la the Jetsons? Seemed a mite impractical. Food-in-a-pill? Not very appealing. And all those sleek and pointy fashions we were going to be wearing surely would get boring after awhile.

But I will tell you one thing: I never in a million years thought that we might be producing body parts via office equipment.

3D printing has got to be one of the most gobsmacking things to emerge in the last decade, just on sheer cool factor alone. Below you’ll find a video of folks printing out a wrench. A wrench! From a printer!

But wrenches, and toys, and various other useful items and gee-gaws absolutely pale in comparison to two things that floated across my eyeballs in the past couple of days:

  1. A 3D printed jaw.
  2. 3D printed human tissue.

The jaw was developed for an 83 year old woman by a research team from Belgium and Holland (suggesting that Rick Santorum might-maybe have been mistaken in his declaration that the Dutch like to off old people for being all old n’ stuff):

After an 83-year old woman was diagnosed with progressive osteomyelitis, an infection affecting almost her entire mandible, and doctors surmised that removal of the infected area was the only way forward. Removal would have left her with a non-functional jaw, which would require highly complex microsurgical reconstruction via transplantation of bone and soft tissues.

Due to the patient’s age, this wasn’t an ideal solution, so the team collaborated with Xilloc, a company specializing in tailor-made implants, and LayerWise, a metal additive manufacturer, to create a 3D printed prosthetic jaw. The team used traditional computer-aided design (CAD) software to model the implant, but when it came to constructing it, they needed to think outside the box.

Consumer-facing 3D printers commonly use materials such as plastic or resin to sculpt their creations, which would have been unsuitable for surgical application, so LayerWise used powdered titanium.

Powdered titanium! In your jaw!!1!

On the 3D tissue front, we probably shouldn’t really call it “human,” in the strictest sense, but it’s close enough that drugs can be tested on it, potentially saving pharmaceutical companies billions of dollars by detecting toxicity before the human testing stage.

But that’s not all.

A start-up called Organovo uses a 3D printer to build a variety of human tissue types, from cardiac muscle to blood vessels. The company hopes to eventually print entire organs for transplant from feedstock of a patient’s own cells, thereby reducing the likelihood of rejection.


I mean: Isn’t that totally cool?!

To read more about the titanium jaw, go to the original article on The Verge: Doctors use 3D printing to rebuild a woman’s jaw.

To read more about the human-like tissue, go to my source, Boing Boing: Printing human tissue for drug testing or go directly to their source, MIT’s Technology Review: Printing Muscle.

And to watch a really pretty nifty example of 3D printing, watch the following!


And if you need me, I’ll be on my fainting couch.



  1. It would appear that Star Trek has inspired yet another 21st Century technology. Of course, as I recall, Dr. Crusher did not replicate body parts. But just imagine it: you need a new heart valve, and they make you one based on your own cellular structure, which avoids the problem of rejection. And if we could use the technology to replicate simple food items? It might be the key to ending world hunger.

    I love living in the future! Too bad so many Americans are trying to live in the past.

    • Keep in mind that this isn’t actually replicating anything. It’s simply taking source material and arranging it in useful patterns … and as of yet, they are basically neutral patterns where living tissue is concerned. There is, I believe, a significant difference between growing muscle tissue and growing, say, a blood vessel or even a kidney. (Growing tissue from a blood vessel isn’t quite the same thing.) And even if that’s possible, there are probably other issues to consider. Sure, they can grow you a new valve, but your old one was defective, right? So is it worthwhile to build another one from the same DNA that created the defective one? What if that one’s defective as well?

      Don’t get me wrong, I think 3D printers are very cool … it’s just important to remember that for the time being, and for the foreseeable future, they’re somewhat limited. If you have enough of the source material – say, plastic – you can print all kinds of useful things. Pieces for board games, intricate models … a DNA playset

      I know … rain, parade …

      • Still cool.

        • I’m just trying to calibrate reactions to the right degree of cool. That Einstein guy and his c-squared thing, you know. (Besides, matter replication has an unfortunate impact on the industries that make those products … it is no accident that Star Trek takes place in a post-scarcity society.)

          Printing spare parts for a playset or a desk or a chair in your house, without having to bother contacting a company that probably isn’t even in business any more? Priceless. (That’s one of the best uses I can imagine for these, once the price drops low enough that they’re not just an extravagance.) They’re not going to replace mass production any time soon, because, well, it takes too long. Individuals and small businesses, though, would be more than happy to sacrifice speed for flexibility, in much the same way that we use multifunction 2D-printers at home.

          If you have a process that can reduce an object to feedstock, then you’ve got a whole new set of customers …

          1. Print out toy for cat
          2. Watch cat play with toy for 2 days
          3. Watch cat ignore toy because it’s old
          4. Melt down toy
          5. Print out different toy
          6. Go to step 2

  2. Zorro

     /  February 22, 2012

    So much for the idea that European medical care is inferior to American medical care.

  3. I have to say, the 3D printer is pretty darn impressive

    • caoil

       /  February 22, 2012

      It certainly is! I’m glad that the theoretical physicist is just as bewildered by it as I am.

  4. The dream of regenerative medicine, one which also propels stem cell research.

    Two issues: One, printing organs such as livers or kidneys is a different matter than printing titanium bones or sheets of skin or muscle, mainly having to do with the architecture of living tissue; in other words, it’s tough to build “up”. I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but that this is an ongoing issue in regenerative medicine.

    Two, a big issue in stem cell research is controlling cell growth. Researchers are able to grow all types of tissue in petri dishes, but understanding the processes by which these tissues develop and are maintained is crucial before these tissues could be transplanted into humans. Nobody wants to transplant tissue into someone and have that person develop cancer or some other disease as a result.

    And as a side-issue, while self-grown tissue would almost certainly help to avoid tissue rejection or graft-vs-host disease, it wouldn’t work for those patients in whom the problem resides in their cells to begin with. Developing “naked” or “naive” stem cell lines which could be tailored to fit a person’s immunological profile and/or developing a huge range of cell lines which would cover most people would still be needed for both research and clinical practice.

    None of this is to say that the technical issues cannot be overcome or that 3D “printing” won’t have a place in medicine. A hell of a lot of really basic work has to be done before this admittedly supremely cool technology is integrated into widespread practice.

  5. Ack: “GRAFT vs host disease”, not “grave”. Yeesh.

  6. HOLY CRAP! A 3D printer!!!

  7. dmf

     /  February 22, 2012

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