VIDEO: 3D printer may offer key to organ creation

Making replacement organs or printable skin at the touch of a button may seem like science fiction, but advances in three-dimensional printing may soon make them science fact.

University of Wollongong researchers are leading the way in this area thanks to the arrival last month of a 3D bio-plotter, the first of its kind in Australia.

The 3D printer, which is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, is the latest in the suite of 3D printers at the university's Australian Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science.

Research Fellow Dr Robert Gorkin said that while the bio-plotter worked in much the same way as other 3D printers, it could potentially be used to create patient-specific implants and one day even organs for transplant.

"This machine is able to use bio-materials to print material in a sterile environment that more accurately represents human tissue," he said.

"So instead of making a pacemaker or a cochlear implant out of metal or plastic, you will be able to make them out of a biological living material which is better for the body.

"Nature is close to perfect and is so difficult to replicate, but we are trying to mimic nature as closely as we can with the special materials we are creating here, so that we can eventually create structures that become muscles, nerve and bone."

Three-dimensional printing - or additive manufacturing - came to international attention this month with US President Barack Obama touching on the topic in his State of the Union address.

Sophisticated 3D printers had the potential, Mr Obama said, "to revolutionise the way we make almost everything".

The Wollongong research centre, based at the Innovation Campus, is already using 3D printing to produce prototypes or custom-ordered items for a range of industry and business partners.

Research Fellow Dr Stephen Beirne said engineers could take a 3D computer model of a component and print it layer by layer.

"We have the highest resolution metal printing system in the country which has been used in industry to manufacture everything from jewellery to dental implants to large automotive components," he said.

With the new bio-plotter, a whole new world of applications has now opened up.

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