3D Printed Blood Vessels Come to Congress

The popular technology is revolutionizing design, manufacturing — and even health care.

3D printers are on display at the annual Chaos Communication Congress on December 28, 2013 in Hamburg, Germany. A strong topic of discussion this year is the role of anti-terror surveillance and saturated data collection by the NSA. The annual congress, organized by the Chaos Computer Club (CCC), attracts an average of 6,000 hackers from all over the world to discuss technological and political issues. (
National Journal
Laura Ryan and Reena Flores
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Laura Ryan Reena Flores
May 9, 2014, 12:39 p.m.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4943) }}A 3D print­er can trans­form a com­puter design in­to phys­ic­al ob­jects — such as jew­elry, toys, or even blood ves­sels — in a mat­ter of minutes.

Yes, that’s right: 3D print­ers could soon be able to make or­gans and ar­ter­ies for trans­plants.

See­ing is be­liev­ing, so Jordan Miller — a pro­fess­or at Rice Uni­versity who is pi­on­eer­ing the use of 3D print­ing to cre­ate blood ves­sels used in or­gan trans­plants — brought his print­er to Cap­it­ol Hill on Wed­nes­day to show law­makers and staffers the re­volu­tion­ary po­ten­tial of the tech­no­logy at an event hos­ted by Rep. Mark Takano of Cali­for­nia and the con­sumer-ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Know­ledge.

“That’s kind of amaz­ing that it could ac­tu­ally print the cells and cre­ate maybe cer­tain types of tis­sues,” Takano said about Miller’s device. “That’s fas­cin­at­ing.”

Like a tra­di­tion­al print­er, a 3D print­er starts with a design on the com­puter. Once you hit send, the print­er builds the di­git­al file lay­er-by-lay­er in­to a phys­ic­al ob­ject, us­ing a fil­a­ment con­trolled by a small tube in­stead of ink. Most 3D print­ers use a form of plastic, but Miller uses sug­ar to re­cre­ate ar­ter­ies so that they can even­tu­ally dis­solve.

Ori­gin­ally de­signed in 1983, the tech­no­logy will be a mult­i­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dustry by the end of the dec­ade. The tech­no­logy is a boon to many in­dus­tries, mak­ing the lives of sci­ent­ists, en­tre­pren­eurs, and artists easi­er by sav­ing time and money spent on build­ing pro­to­types. It’s already mak­ing an im­pact — the pop­u­lar mo­bile pay­ment sys­tem Square was first pro­to­typed with a 3D print­er.

Now that the print­ers can be bought for as low as $200, people are us­ing them to cre­ate con­sumer goods, such as toys and candy, as well as for edu­ca­tion.

But 3D print­ing has the po­ten­tial to lit­er­ally save lives. Miller’s prin­ted blood ves­sels com­ple­ments work done by sci­ent­ist around the world who are us­ing the print­ers to cre­ate trans­plant or­gans, such as hearts or liv­ers.

Print­ing full or­gans is still years away, but the devices al­low for the “in­tense cus­tom­iz­a­tion” ne­ces­sary to make it even pos­sible, Miller said. Even­tu­ally, sci­ent­ists could use the prin­ted or­gans to test new medi­cines and even one day help fill the need for or­gan trans­plants.

Law­makers are start­ing to take no­tice of the tech­no­logy, and a small group of con­gress­men wants to en­sure that laws are made that help the ma­chines ful­fill their prom­ise rather than get in their way.

Like the In­ter­net be­fore it, a 3D print­ing re­volu­tion will chal­lenge ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions, spe­cific­ally in­tel­lec­tu­al prop­erty. The devices are power­ful, be­cause they can du­plic­ate ob­jects quickly and pre­cisely, but some are con­cerned that those qual­it­ies could also be used for ill to copy or steal products. Some even fear that the tech­no­logy could be used to cre­ate plastic guns.

“I don’t want to see [guns] as a dis­trac­tion to the amaz­ing cre­ativ­ity that’s go­ing on in this room,” Takano said.

That’s why Takano, along with Reps. Steve Stivers and Mick Mul­vaney, are lead­ing the charge to edu­cate their col­leagues and con­stitu­ents about the po­ten­tial op­por­tun­it­ies of the tech­no­logy.

“We have to un­der­stand [3D print­ing], and that means bring­ing the tech­no­logy to the Cap­it­ol for mem­bers to ac­tu­ally see with their own eyes how these devices work,” Takano said. “Oth­er­wise, sen­sa­tion­al­ist head­lines that tell a nar­row part of the story will drive a con­gres­sion­al agenda that could hurt the in­dustry.”

The Con­gres­sion­al Makers Caucus, launched earli­er this year, wants to edu­cate mem­bers of Con­gress about how maker spaces — com­munity spaces that make 3D print­ers avail­able to the com­munity and en­tre­pren­eurs — can be used to edu­cate and in­nov­ate.

“3D print­ing is a tech­no­logy on the cusp of a ma­jor break­through that will cre­ate jobs, con­trib­ute to STEM edu­ca­tion and change the av­er­age con­sumers pur­chas­ing habits,” Takano ad­ded. “It’s Con­gress’s job to see this pos­it­ive trend com­ing and en­cour­age it.”

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