The long metal table in the University of Michigan biomedical engineering lab is covered by a film of white dust. Scattered across the table are opaque-colored objects shaped like ears, noses, vertebrae, and jawbones -- all made from biological material.
A few feet away, a small room houses a quietly humming 3-D printer -- about 6 feet tall and almost as wide. In a windowed opening near the middle of the machine, a metal platform, piled with the bio-material, moves up and down as a laser transforms the dust into a tiny splint.
That splint will prop open part of a dying baby's lung.
"It's magical," says Dr. Glenn Green, a pediatric otolaryngologist at U-M who later implanted the splint. "We're talking about taking dust and using it to build body parts."
It's called bioprinting, and it is one of medicine's most exciting frontiers. Eventually these machines could be used to print fully functioning organs, using a patient's own cells. In other words, custom-made organs.
Today, researchers at Cornell University are bioprinting ears using human cells. A 3-D printed skull recently replaced a 22-year-old's diseased one at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. Wake Forest researchers are studying how to print skin directly onto burn patients. And at U-M, two babies have had bronchial splints implanted.
"If you would have told me 10 years ago that we could get a patient image, make a model, design and print it in a span of a day and a half, it would have blown me away," says Scott Hollister, a professor of biomedical engineering at UM who engineered the splints.
For now, 3-D printing of viable solid organs like hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys still dwells in the sci-fi realm. Figuring out how to make it real will likely take decades.
But lab-created flat and tubular organs -- think skin, windpipes, and blood vessels -- could be routine options for patients in as little as 15 to 20 years, says Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
"We are just starting to see the real potential of these technologies for the future," he says. "It's going to open up so many different avenues not just for what we can think of today, but things we never before thought possible for patients."