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Posted: Oct 31, 2014
Biofabrication enters university mainstream with 3D body part printing degree
(Nanowerk News) Australian students will soon be learning how to use 3D printing to churn out living replacement body parts, as universities team with their European counterparts to offer a world-first degree course.
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the University of Wollongong will partner with the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands and the University of Würzburg in Germany next year to offer the world's first international masters degree in 3D body part printing.
The two years Masters course in biofabrication looks at how to use 3D printing to create living artificial tissues and biological tissue substitutes.
QUT's Biomaterials and Tissue Morphology Group leader Mia Woodruff said 3D technology offered an alternative to traditionally used artificial biomaterials, such as silicone breast implants and metal pins.
"Because 3D printing is becoming such accessible technology... people are starting to use 3D printing technology to process these biomaterials into three dimensional structures," she said.
"We're able to add cells from the actual patients we're trying to treat, and that makes a three-dimensional living tissue."
St Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne is involved in a research program with several universities, including the University of Wollongong and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) looking at the 3D printing of body parts.
QUT is pioneering research into 3D printed replacement breast tissue for mastectomy patients.
Professor Peter Choong from St Vincent's said medical procedures using the technology could be extremely patient-specific.
"Take orthopaedics for example... You can get bones from the bone bank, which is other people's bones, but sometimes this causes reactions or infections,'" he said.
"What this technique does is make it very patient-specific so you can build something to exactly match the defected part, and it does not carry the risk of transmissible disease."
Associate Professor Woodruff said another advantage of biofabrication was that the polymers implanted into the body would degrade over time.
"During the period they're dissolving new tissue is forming in a way that exactly mimics the original tissue," she said.
"It just gets smaller and smaller and the tissue forms more and more in the scaffold, which is highly porous, and eventually the polymer disappears and you're left with regenerated tissue."
Artificial implantable organs could be about 50 years away
The University of Wollongong's Stephen Beirne said biofabrication technology could even allow the 3D printing of whole implantable organs.
"There's numerous hurdles between here and there, but a very vague estimate would be 50 years," Dr Beirne said.
It is these kinds of predictions that have researchers and medical professionals expecting rapid growth in the industry.
Associate Professor Woodruff said biofabrication was a niche market at the moment, but advances in technology, accessibility and cost-efficiency meant there was potential for huge growth.
"If these students are entrepreneurial and develop their own products and their own companies and printers, they will be driving this new additive manufacturing medical industry," she said.
"We think the medical side of additive manufacturing is where the growth will be, and this is where all of the amazing breakthroughs and new products, and new technologies, and job opportunities, and growth, and financial benefits will come from."
Associate Professor Woodruff said the new degree had been popular with prospective students.
"It's the first of its kind, it's a really unique Masters course because it's international and very cutting-edge," she said.
The Australian universities will take on 10 students each.
The students will spend their first year in Australia undertaking research, and the second year at their European sister universities while the European students come to Australia.
"After two years we'll be graduating 40 students, all over the world, who'll be pioneering this 3D printing medical technology," Associate Professor Woodruff said.
Australia in a strong position in 3D printing industry
Three-dimensional printing is an additive manufacturing technique, meaning objects are built layer-by-layer.
Associate Professor Woodruff said almost anything could be printed using the technology.
"You're effectively building up a structure from the bottom up, so whatever size or shape it needs to be, your computer can have an X-Y-Z coordinate system which a print model will follow, and the code that you put into the computer will build a three-dimensional structure based on the computer-aided design," she said.
"A medical scan can be used, or a house structure, or a box, or a little rocket, or anything that you can print. It's a layer-by-layer printing approach that builds products higher and higher."
"They're printing houses in China and dresses on the catwalks in Milan."
She said commonly used subtractive manufacturing techniques - for example machining a block of metal into a specific shape - created a lot of waste product.
"Additive manufacturing is fantastic because everything that you're printing is part of the actual product you're creating," she said.
Professor Choong said the advanced technology in 3D printing and the medical research that had been done in Australia put the country in a strong position in the medical 3D printing industry.
"The other week we printed a heel ... That's an example of how we're transferring science and research into practice," he said.
"This is a time when you can really bring the research together with focusing on clinical need and translating it and that's what we're doing here at St Vincent's; bringing together researchers, technology and industry to meet the needs of our patients."