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For about a decade, scientists have been speculating that it might someday be possible to build organs on demand with a machine that works something like the replicator on Star Trek. A recent innovation may go a long way toward making this possible.

Three-D printing technology has become something that ordinary people can afford. With basic 3-D printers sold for a retail price of just $400 or so, many home hobbyists are having fun making simple objects from coils of liquid plastic laid down in 1/2-milllimeter layers one layer at a time.

Three-D Printing Already a Reality in Medicine

Three-D printing has also found a niche in medicine. Surgeons use 3-D models of their patients' internal organs to practice difficult operations. When Boston Children's Hospital Dr. John Meara was called to do a complicated operation to move the eyes of one-year-old Violet Pietrok, who had a congenital malformation called a Tessier cleft that placed her eyes on the side of her face, he persuaded colleagues to use MRIs of her skull and facial bones to make a 3-D model of her head so he could fully understand which bones he needed to move. At a cost of just $1200 each, four models of the bones were made, each accurate to less than a hair's breadth. The models allowed Meara to figure out how to move the bones so that the eye sockets were close enough, but not too close, to correct the child's vision without severing the optic nerve. The procedure was successful, and now Boston Children's Hospital has a Pediatric Simulator Program and a $400,000 3-D printer that runs nearly fulltime in its basement.

Tailor-Made Medical Devices That Save Patient Lives

Three-D printing has also been used to make unique medical appliances. Garrett Peterson was born to his parents Jake and Natalie in Layton, Utah in 2012. Garrett had a defective windpipe. Over and over his windpipe collapsed, and over and over he had to have emergency resuscitation. Garrett spent the first year of his life in an ICU, and his doctors were not sure how long they could keep him alive. Then Jake and Natalie heard about doctors at the University of Michigan who were using 3-D printers to custom-make tiny devices they call "splints" that can keep the larynx open. Their doctors were able to get plans for a splint, duplicate it with a 3-D printer, and implant it in Garrett. In a couple of weeks he was finally able to go home to live with his family.

Biological Robots

University of Illinois researcher Vincent Chan has even been able to make tiny "biological robots" from a combination of muscle cells and gel that have the capacity to travel around the body, carrying sensors or delivering medicine. Chan's method uses the 3-D printer to lay down the gel in the right pattern. Then he adds a soup of muscle cells and allows them to "swim" to the right place in the organ. There's just one problem with the technique. The cells don't necessarily move to where they need to go. That's where a recent innovation called "acoustic tweezers" comes in.

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