Photographs by Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine
The ghostlike body parts you see here are not quite human but not entirely artificial. They’re prototypes made by a team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine, in North Carolina, and they are cranked out on a custom-built 3-D printer. The machine is fitted with multiple cartridges feeding a tiny nozzle, some loaded with liquefied plastics, others with cells cultured from a patient’s own. Laying material down layer by layer, alternating the synthetics and the living stuff, the printer creates whatever shape a computer program specifies. Eventually doctors plan to implant these parts in the body, whereupon nature will take over, growing tissue into the voids of the mesh; meanwhile, the plastic matrix will degrade and wash away, leaving behind pure regrown cartilage, soft tissue, or bone. The 3-D-printed versions haven’t made it into human testing yet, but the materials themselves have, in the form of sewn-together bladders and urine tubes, and the Wake Forest team envisions some custom implants becoming available in the next decade. In the very long term, the researchers believe that they will be able to print a kidney, or at least an add-on patch that can boost the function of a failing natural organ and thus get people off dialysis. Since the cells in question are actually the patient’s, they’ll never be rejected the way a transplanted organ may be—and the agonizing, sometimes deadly wait for a donor match could become a thing of the past.