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Silk Livers? Artificial Tongues? How the Future of 3D Printing Could Change Your Body

We’re getting closer and closer to figuring out how to make artificial body parts actually work like body parts. So that’s nice!

Some years ago, it seemed like 3D printing was going to be all the rage. People talked about it like I was going to be able to 3D print a sword from the comfort of my living room. Now it’s 2020, and I still haven’t seen a goddamn 3D printer! Apparently, though, 3D printing has been of greater significance in the medical world, with scientists working on all sorts of freaky ways to develop body parts. Soon enough, in fact, should you need a transplant, you might be outfitted with a 3D-printed liver or an artificial tongue that can actually taste. 

Currently, 3D-printed body parts largely remain in the lab, as there have not yet been enough tests and studies to understand precisely how an organ that doesn’t actually come from a human will function in a human body. In recent years, scientists have gotten closer to figuring out how to better conduct organ transplants on people utilizing pig parts. Maybe, though, we’ll be able to skip that part entirely. 

In a study published in Materials Today Bio, researchers from Osaka University determined that silk nanofibers can help cells utilized in 3D printing retain their shape and structure, while avoiding the damage typically caused in the printing process. Previously, 3D-printed parts and organs only held their shape for a short time, obviously lessening their functional ability in the body. In addition to helping maintain the integrity of the “ink” used in biological 3D printing, which can range in materials from gelatin to hyaluronic acid, silk is also safe to use within the human body when treated to remove a specific protein that can cause inflammation. 

On top of making 3D body parts actually look like body parts for a longer period of time, scientists have also recently figured out how to make these body parts function like body parts. Most recently, researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of Edinburgh have developed a 3D-printed synthetic tongue, capable of tasting things. Unsurprisingly, this was an incredibly complicated process, accounting for the topography of the tongue and the structure of individual taste buds. Exactly how these artificial tongues are capable of understanding taste is unclear — currently, they’re designed for studying food science, not for replacement within an actual mouth. 

Clearly, there’s still a ways to go in terms of 3D body parts, but we’re getting there. Considering there are more than 109,000 people on the organ transplant list in the U.S. and 17 people die waiting for a transplant every day, any progress gets us closer to fulfilling that need. It’ll just be an added fancy bonus if future organs also happen to be made of silk.