Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Genre: Radio, Documentary
Howard Stableford anchors this 30 minute documentary on the growing applications of 3D printing to bioscience.
As long ago as 2005, a bald eagle had a damaged beak repaired using 3D printing. Stableford talks to a team who are working on a 3D printed seawall and reef structures, that has nooks and crannies suitable for various organisms to live, in a way that is not possible with more typical engineered materials. It is like producing a city for the anticipated biolife likely to live in that area. The reefs have a natural appearance and replacing existing areas lost in previous developments. It may be possible to adapt existing processes to work with living tissue.
Bio-printing involves material that incorporate “viable living cells”. This is not about printing tissue directly, but is more an extension of existing tissue engineering approaches, in which cells are persuaded to develop into tissues. A temporary scaffold is used to direct the required shape. Currently a “soup” of cell suspension is introduced into a scaffold. 3D Bio-printing would incorporate cells into a scaffold in new orientations, rather than actually printing a tissue. The question is posed whether parallel advances in 3D printing and DNA manipulation techniques, might allow us to reach a point where we could print an organism.
Of course this would be far from trivial. If you knew the entire internal 3D layout of an organism you might be able to print this. This is unlikely. Making an egg instead, provided with the relevant genetic information and nutrients would be more feasible but even this is a long way off.
The strength of this programme is the enthusiasm for those willing to push boundaries, to see what is possible with these emerging technologies. However, although the programme overall was thought-provoking episode, floating possibilities, there was little solid content. In that sense it was rather reminiscent of an old episode of Tomorrow’s World, which – of course – Stableford also used to present.