3-D Printing our Missing Pieces

3-D printing continues to be one of the most prolific modern technologies, used in everything from art and cuisine to construction and space travel. Yet the extent of its possible uses is only beginning to be explored. We’ve already mentioned how the technology has been used for controversial means, such as printing weapons and “transporting” items, but there have been just as many inspiring uses. With the recent news of scientists using 3-D printing to create living tissue, there has been movement to create missing body parts for those in need.

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention

When engineer Albert Manero was studying at the University of Central Florida, his primary goal was to design the next line of spacecraft to take humanity beyond the stars. His plans changed slightly in 2013 when he heard a radio interview about groundbreaking work using 3-D printing to replace missing limbs. This inspired him to see how well his engineering skills could be applied toward uses for the human body. He graduated from UCF in 2014 with a degree in aerospace engineering and is currently pursuing a doctorate in medical engineering.

In the meantime, Albert leads an engineering team that focuses almost exclusively on creating 3-D printed missing appendages. With their initial research funded out of their own pockets and a Fulbright Fellowship, Albert and his team have gained most of their recognition for the limbs they’ve created for children. You may have seen a recent viral video in which one of Albert’s seven-year-old clients has his new arm delivered to him by a superhero.

As Albert and his team continue their groundbreaking research in Germany, he’s also pursued his other passion by studying at the German Aerospace Center.

Just My Size

Peruvian-born surgeon Anthony Atala had already begun groundbreaking research in the field of stem cells before 3-D printing became a regular staple of technology news. Ten years ago Atala oversaw the engineering of a lab-grown kidney, which remains with its recipient to this very day. In March 2011, Atala spoke at a TED Talk in which he discussed his research, championed the use of 3-D printing to create transplant organs from living tissue, and introduced the recipient of the engineered kidney he’d created a decade prior.

Cutting-edge pioneers like Manero and Atala aren’t the only ones making use of 3-D printing in this way. Earlier this year, eighth grade students at Deer Creek Intermediate School in Wisconsin used a mere $20 worth of materials to create a 3-D printed limb extension for a six-year-old girl born with only part of her arm. The fully functioning arm – with a winter design inspired by the movie Frozen – was created over two months during the students’ lunch period. The girl later showed off the finished model to the creators via webcam.

Prosthetic Hand Inspired by Frozen
(via The Mary Sue)

As mentioned before, the widespread use of new technology will bring with it a series of moral debates as to what constitutes “appropriate use”. But as legislators and ethicists argue those points in the public forum, there is a strong assurance that widespread use of 3-D printing can be a benefit rather than a detriment.

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