Mr Popp, can replacement organs be printed out?

This article was published in our newsletter. Sign up here.

“It is already possible to print cell material. In principle, a heart for example can be printed in less than three minutes, and an entire human in roughly two hours and forty minutes. That said, these printed objects are merely lifeless cell masses in the shape of a heart or a human being; the manifold interactions that take place in the body cannot yet be reproduced. As yet, perfect blood vessels cannot be printed either, because they are too complex.

Organs could be 3D-printed in 30 years

Uwe Popp and his colleagues are driving forward medical applications of 3D printing.

Nonetheless, the medical applications of 3D printing are being driven forward all the time because there are simply not enough donor organs. Some experts predict that it will be possible to print fully functional organs in 30 years’ time. At Indmatec we are working on using an inorganic, that is to say inanimate, polymer to manufacture substitute bones which could be used to replace broken bones or damaged joints. The synthetic material, which is called polyether ether ketone, or PEEK for short, is biocompatible, meaning that it is not rejected by the body.

The same principle as a hot glue gun

Currently, implants are still cut from this material, which means long waiting times and a laborious reworking and finishing phase. However, we could already use PEEK in our 3D printer, which functions rather like a hot glue gun: the raw material – a length of PEEK wire – is guided through a hot jet by a long coil, and melts in the process. The print head then applies the liquid material layer by layer to create the implant. It works so precisely that even complex shapes can be formed. The next step is to establish 3D printing with PEEK in medicine.”

Thank you for the fascinating answer, Mr Popp.

This text was written by Andreas Fischer for the May-June 2016 edition of the Helmholtz Association’s research magazine “Helmholtz Perspektiven”. 
The magazine can be downloaded here: > Helmholtz Perspektiven


More information