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3D printing bionic organs

3D printed eye prosthetics shown by Michael McAlpine, as mock up of future implants that can augment human sight. Differently from contact lenses or glasses, these prosthetics are meant to live in symbioses with the eye tissues. Image credit: Ackerman – Gruber

Integrating electronics in biological systems is a sort of holy grail of research, aiming at leveraging the best from artificial and natural evolution. This was the starting point in the setting up of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative and was also part of the Digital Senses Initiative now morphed into Digital Reality Initiative at FDC-IEEE.

Addressing the challenges to create a seamless integration requires the convergence of several disciplines, from the obvious biology and electronics, to chemistry, material sciences, physiology, small worlds and artificial intelligence. Additionally, it requires addressing production methods.

This latter has been the focus of studies of a team at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, led by Michael McAlpine. In a recent paper he presents the results achieved in using 3D printing to create nano-bionic organs.

The team created a custom 3D printer that uses in parallel silicones, metals and live cells to print tissues and (very simple) organs. A bio-electrict ear (the external part of the ear – the pinna) was printed embedding a coil antenna – made by silver nano-particles- in cartilage forming cells. This symbiotic pinna could in principle detect electromagnetic waves that a microchip could convert into a stimulation of the aural nerve thus bringing those signals to the brain. We know that the brain plasticity would make use of those signals increasing its sensing capability. It would be an example of human augmentation.

Another result, see photo, is the creation of an artificial eye embedding photodetectors that might flank a failing/failed retina to restore (at least partially) vision.

So far the team has not gone into the actual implantation of these prosthetics into a human. The first step is to try them on rats and see not just if they work as expected but also the long term effects on the recipient.

It is surely a long term scenario but what is interesting is that this research is addressing the manufacturing aspects, a crucial step towards the feasibility of symbioses.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.