Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Heart cartridge

I've been meaning to blog about organ printing since I first saw it mentioned on Boing Boing, but I didn't yet have a blog to blog it on. As a result, I'm not exactly on the cutting edge here, but this hardly diminishes the awesomeness of the technology.

From the New Scientist article:
Gabor Forgacs, a biophysicist at the University of Missouri in Columbia, described his "bioprinting" technique last week at the Experimental Biology 2006 meeting in San Francisco. It relies on droplets of "bioink", clumps of cells a few hundred micrometres in diameter, which Forgacs has found behave just like a liquid.

This means that droplets placed next to one another will flow together and fuse, forming layers, rings or other shapes, depending on how they were deposited. To print 3D structures, Forgacs and his colleagues alternate layers of supporting gel, dubbed "biopaper", with the bioink droplets. To build tubes that could serve as blood vessels, for instance, they lay down successive rings containing muscle and endothelial cells, which line our arteries and veins. "We can print any desired structure, in principle," Forgacs told the meeting.
Maybe the most elegant thing about this technology is how naturally it collects and animates existing data. There's no mystery about what organs look like in slices; we've been looking at the body that way since the invention of computed tomography (early 1970s according to Wikipedia, and who am I to argue?). As Forgacs would apparently say, we learned this in kindergarten. (My boyfriend, who took classical mechanics with Forgacs, reports that anything the class had already covered was considered to be "learned in kindergarten.") The printer doesn't require fresh data or complicated mental gymnastics. It uses a new technology to activate what we already know.

Of course I'm also fond of the apparent lack of moral ambiguity -- in fact, I can't totally suppress a smug sense of triumph on behalf of Forgacs and his team. "Object to this, science-phobic fundies," I've been saying, sometimes out loud. "This is a technology that can eventually save lives, even nonwhite non-Christian lives, without encouraging sex or endangering zygotes. Scary, no? I dare you to find a platform on which to condemn it." Perhaps I'm underestimating the noise machine, but I daresay there's no foothold for pseudo-pious outrage on this one.

Seriously, though, "bioink"? Does anyone else pronounce this in their head as though it were a sound effect? They could really do with a judiciously-placed hyphen in there.


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