We are indebted to the BBC, the highly respected publication Nature Biotechnology and of course the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina for bringing this exciting use of electronics technology to our attention. Under the leadership of Prof Anthony Atala at Wake Forest, custom-made, living body parts have been 3D-printed in what is described as a significant advance for regenerative medicine.
This breakthrough, as described in Nature Biotechnology,raises the hope of using living tissues to repair the body. Until these developments, the concept reproducing individual human cells in a precise pattern to replace (say) a missing ear (picture courtesy of Wake Forest) has been limited by the challenge of keeping the cells alive. The team at Wake Forest has developed a technique that 3D-prints a tissue impregnated with ultra-thin micro-channels to allow nutrients to penetrate the tissue.
As a result, Prof Atala said tissues could now be printed on a human scale which will certainly open new doors for medicine.
Speaking to the BBC News website, he said "Let's say a patient presented with an injury to their jaw bone and there's a segment missing.
"We'd bring the patient in, do the imaging and then we would take the imaging data and transfer it through our software to drive the printer to create a piece of jawbone that would fit precisely in the patient."
Prof Atala added: "In this study we printed a wide range of tissue strengths - from muscles as a soft tissue to cartilage and bone as a hard tissue showing a whole range of tissue strengths is possible.
"The hope is to continue work on these technologies to target other human tissues as well."
Prof Martin Birchall, a surgeon at University College London, told the BBC the results were "striking". He said "The prospect of printing human tissues and organs for implantation has been a real one for some time, but I confess I did not expect to see such rapid progress.
He cautioned there was still more research to be done before the printer could be used in patients.
But he concluded: "Given the scale of this breakthrough, progress in other fields, the resources available to the researchers at Wake Forest and the imperatives for human health, I think it will be less than a decade before surgeons like me are trialling customised printed organs and tissues."