Lab-made organs could do more than just serve as ready options for patients in need: with the right blend of biology and materials science, they might even be able endow people with superhuman abilities.
That’s what researchers at Princeton University see as the future of tissue engineering, and they believe 3-D printing is the way there. Michael McAlpine and members of his lab recently reported that a 3-D printer could build a bionic ear capable of detecting frequencies a million times higher than the normal range of hearing.
The ear demonstrates how 3-D printing can seamlessly bring together electronics and biological tissues. Normally, these materials don’t play well together—one is rigid and fractures easily, while the other is soft and flexible. But with 3-D printing, the two can be fabricated together, says McAlpine. “It’s a way you can naturally intertwine everything together into a three-dimensional format,” he says. This could help researchers make body tissues with integrated devices that can monitor health, or even build cyborg organs that augment conventional senses.
The team started with an ear because the shape is difficult to re-create with traditional tissue engineering. Also, much of an ear is cartilage, which lacks blood vessels—structures that elude tissue engineers (for now).