Dirk Rodenburg discusses the benefits and potential harms of 3D bioprinting.
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.
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 views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.