Desktop 3-D printers can make some pretty neato, customized tchotchkes for your desk, but their use extends well beyond whimsy. Technology in the 3-D printing space has become sophisticated enough that desktop machines are capable of manufacturing replacement windpipes for children.
It is possible to literally print cartilage through a MakerBot 3-D printer now. Medical researchers at the New York-based Feinstein Institute have manufactured cartilage with a MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D Printer, a desktop version available for $2,499 directly through MakerBot or on Amazon. A 3-D printed trachea skeleton, roughly the size of a hollowed-out Tootsie Roll, was merged with living cells that grow into cartilage, according to a joint statement from 3-D printer manufacturer MakerBot and the Feinstein Institute released today.
The development in 3-D printing technology marked the first of its kind. “Making a windpipe or trachea is uncharted territory,” says Todd Goldstein, a researcher at the Feinstein Institute, in the statement. “It has to be rigid enough to withstand coughs, sneezes and other shifts in pressure, yet flexible enough to allow the neck to move freely.”
An individual’s trachea, or windpipe, could become damaged by cancer, trauma or other various injuries. The 3-D printing technology is expected to be particularly useful in making replacement windpipes for children, whose tracheas can vary greatly in size.
Being able to rapidly prototype the windpipe replacement with 3-D printing accelerated the development process significantly. “The ability to prototype, examine, touch, feel and then redesign within minutes, within hours, allows for the creation of this type of technology,” says Dr. Lee Smith, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at Cohen Children's Medical Center, a hospital in the same network as the Feinstein Institute. “If we had to send out these designs to a commercial printer far away and get the designs back several weeks later, we'd never be where we are today.”