It was nicknamed after a similar machine appeared in Star Trek, but this “replicator” creates neither ice water nor pan-fried fish on demand. Rather, the new 3D printer devised by a group of researchers from University of California, Berkeley, may be the first wave of change in 3D bioprinting.
Present 3D printing is completed in layers; as plastic-like residuals or gel is deposited gradually to construct a solid model. Replicator, on the other hand, duplicates everything at once with the use of light. Specifically, replicator reverses the process of computed tomography (CT) scan.
In CT scan, two dimensional X-ray images are taken of a patient from many different angles. These images will then be consolidated to form a 3D image of the person. For replicator, numerous two dimensional images are captured from a three dimensional object, to be compilated into a video sequence.
3D bioprinting and medicine
The “ink” or synthetic resin, which replicator uses to “print” is kept in a cylinder. As the “printing” process begins, the video sequence is played over the projector, shining onto the cylinder which sets into a spinning motion. Resin inside the cylinder reacts differently to the amount of light shines on it, forming the desire 3D replica in the end.
As early as 2000s, scientists had ventured into the potential of 3D printing to reproduce organs and tissues, to overcome the shortage in donations experienced worldwide. Researchers found that living cells will not be damaged when they are sprayed out by the printers as “ink”.
In 2014, the San Diego based Organovo had successfully printed liver tissue which functioned like a real liver for several weeks. A year later, the same company had also managed to reproduce kidney tubular tissues that are perfectly working.
The prospects of 3D bioprinting do not stop here as it comes in handy in the making of medical tools. 3D bioprinting is believed to lower the cost of making certain surgical devices and ensure their access in remotes areas. Furthermore, pharmacists are eyeing on 3D printing as it allows medicine to come in various shapes and sizes for easier absorption.
Researchers believe replicator shortens the time required by traditional 3D bioprinting. Besides, replicator is able to reproduce part of an existing objects and is able to encapsulate sensitive electronics. The team is now trying to print medical equipment with this new method.
In the long run, artificial intelligence (AI) may give replicator a more segmentize insights into various tissues and organs in great extent, for more accurate printing to take place.
A science writer with data background and an interest in current affair, culture and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.