You forgot to feed your gerbil. In the middle of the night, it escapes its cage and gnaws off your ear. Who you gonna call? Your local 3D print shop. It'll run off a perfect copy of your ear in no time flat.
This is the kind of futuristic scenario that Cornell University's Hod Lipson and colleagues have been painting while discussing "bioprinting" at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
Bioprinting refers to the practice of using 3D printing to make biological tissue such as skin, bone, and cartilage.
The technology has been around for two decades, but researchers recently began using it to create biological structures. The idea is to make custom-designed tissue and organs from a patient's own cells, perhaps eliminating the need for donated organs.
Companies like Organovo are already developing bioprinted blood vessels, which will be essential for artificially grown organs.
"The next big thing and next logical step is [the] development of robotic methods of functional human tissue and organ bioassembly," Vladimir Mironov of the Medical University of South Carolina wrote in a meeting abstract. Mironov has been trying to grow meat in his lab for a decade.
One study has shown how tissue engineering was used to repair a calf's femur. Printing organs such as livers could be next.
Lipson is involved with the open-source Fab@Home project, which began in 2006 with inorganic material and is now looking at printing out ears on a 3D printer. They have already printed cartilage in the shape of a meniscus from a knee joint.
At the meeting, Lipson demonstrated an ear printing using silicone gel instead of actual cells. There's a video of it here (though Lipson is misidentified as Mironov).
"There's still a long way to go before we can take these things and directly implant them into a human," Lipson told meeting attendees. He estimated that the technology could be mainstream in 20 years.
Just in time for me to order a new brain.