A University of Wollongong scientist says, though creating human beings with a 3D printer could still be a lifetime away, replicating brain tissue is happening now.
Professor Gordon Wallace and his team from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science have been developing 3D-printed layered structures incorporating neural cells that mimic the structure of brain tissue.
"It's exactly what the power of 3D printing is in the ability to organise, and of course the brain is exquisitely organised in the layers of cells," he said.
"If you can start to replicate just some of the functions of complicated tissue like the brain on a bench top, then you can start to do things like pharmaceutical investigations on the brain and the effect it has and how those cells behave."
Instead of reverting to animal testing, Prof Wallace said using replicated brain tissue could assist in developing things like the bionic ear or getting better insights into mental health problems and how to better treat them. He said the whole field was moving at an extraordinary pace because of an "alignment of different advances" in technology from different areas like material science, machinery for printing and stem-cell research.
"[There's been] a real convergence in the clinical environment. Where the clinicians are identifying a need that hasn't been solved for decades, and with this collision of different technologies there's a real chance to understand that clinical condition better and then to treat it better."
As for the ability to one day clone a human with a 3D printer, Prof Wallace doesn't think it will be in his lifetime "but it might be in yours".
"Those are the sort of questions people ponder. When you're working in the lab you realise how complicated these systems are," he said.
"We've got a long way to go before we get even to printing individual organs - that's very complex.
"But these small steps that we're taking will certainly be built on by future generations."