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In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Marc Antony spoke these famous words: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” That was then, but this is now: Researchers have actually found a way to create human ears…with a 3-D printer!

Sounds like science fiction, but the technology is real, and it has the medical community ecstatic. Of course, they aren’t using the same printers and materials you’d find at Staples.

How did this happen?

Researchers have been trying for years to create living tissue and organs to meet the overwhelming demand for organ transplants. So recently, a team of researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine used a special 3-D printer called an Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System.

And instead of ink, they “printed” using a mixture of living cells and a biodegradable polymer. Printer nozzles form the tissue into the correct shape, and create a mold to hold the tissue together until it hardens. Using this system, they “printed” a partial human jawbone, some human muscle tissue…and cartilage for a human ear!

And these bones and tissue are not made with plastic or metal. They are made with actual living human tissue. Scientists have been using 3-D printing technology to make metal and polymer artificial bone implants for a while now. But this breakthrough takes us one giant step closer to what used to be science fiction:

Printing fully-functioning human organs.

In fact, Dr. Anthony Atala, who headed the study, said, “With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for [human] surgical implantation.”

Imagine: We could someday be able to print a functioning heart or a liver. Now, they haven’t implanted the 3-D “prints” into humans yet.

Organ donors | LCRHealth

They have, however, placed small bits of the synthetic 3-D parts into rats and mice. Within a few weeks, the implanted synthetic tissue had merged successfully with the real tissue…and was healthy and functioning normally. The next step will be to create living tissue using cells from different parts of the human body. And when they are ready to try it on humans, they will create tissue using cells from the person getting the implant.

Again, it all sounds like science fiction. But if we could “print” functioning tissue and organs, it would revolutionize organ transplants. As you know, there are always long waiting lists for donor organs. But what if your doctor could print a replacement bone or organ for you, partially made with your own cells so your body won’t reject it? Who knows how many lives could be saved?

Just think, you wouldn’t need to wait for someone’s misfortune to get an organ that could save your life. Now, it sounds like a great solution for the growing problem of scarcity of donor organs, but maybe it’s not a simple solution.

For instance, do you think there are any ethical questions or lines that would be crossed by creating and “printing” human body parts, even if they used your own tissue?