Can 3D Printing and Robots Revolutionize Medicine? One Local Entrepreneur's Journey

3D printing creates actual objects by layering materials like plastic, metal, or even living cells. This technique has dramatically changed manufacturing and prototype development and has the potential to disrupt medicine. 3D printing expert and entrepreneur Dr. Mauris DeSilva recently visited Rochester from the Twin Cities. I had the chance to speak with him about his startup 3D Printing and Advanced Robotics Solutions (3D PARS) and how he combines robotics with 3D printing to make the technique even smarter.

3D printing itself is nothing new. The first 3D printer was created in the early 1980s by American engineer Charles Hull to print CAD files as tangible objects. 3D printing was first mainly used to create prototypes or models in the manufacturing industry.

3D printing is expected to have a huge impact on biomedicine. In ten years, the market for biomedical applications of 3D printing is predicted to reach a whopping $1.9B. 3D printing was first used in biomedicine to print prosthetics, allowing limbs for adults, children, and even animals to be created more cheaply and easily than previously possible. However, the applications of 3D printing in biomedicine extend far beyond limbs.

Although biomedical uses for 3D printing are still developing, 3D printing may have profound implications in organ transplantation. There is a constant shortage of human organs available for transplant. 3D printing could create organs from the patient’s own cells or stem cells, cells that have not yet committed to become a particular cell type or lineage. 3D printed organs could solve the whole organ shortage and donor match problem associated with traditional organ transplantation. Plus, the organ recipient would not need to be placed on immunosuppressants for the rest of their life.

But in bioprinting, or printing of functional tissues, we’re no longer printing with a material like plastic. This is printing with living material- cells- making the process a whole lot more complicated. However, bioprinting is possible. A knee meniscus, heart valve, spinal disk, cartilage, bone, and an artificial ear have been printed.

However, no functional whole organs have yet been 3D printed. Creating actual vasculature, the series of blood vessels present in tissue, is one of the biggest hurdles to bioprinting. Blood vessels supply the organ with things like nutrients, oxygen, and growth factors and make that organ actually come to life.

Another issue is the long term viability of a bioprinted organ. Again, this isn’t printing with plastic. Cells are alive. The real challenge is to keep a bioprinted organ alive outside of the body for extended periods of time while the organ is being constructed.

“If I wanted to put a living tissue structure into my body, I would want to design this structure, 3D print it, and get it into my body rapidly with optimized integration rather than grow it outside the body to the point where you think it can be incorporated,” explained Dr. DeSilva. 

Another issue with bioprinted organs is balancing looks with functionality. In Dr. DeSilva’s opinion, if you’re printing a heart, it doesn’t have to look like a heart. It just has to function equal to or better than a normal heart. Forget the aesthetics.

Dr. DeSilva leveraged his background in materials science, biomedical engineering, and nanotechnology to launch his startup 3D PARS in 2015 and make 3D printing smarter.

The end quality of 3D printed products is a problem across multiple applications of the technique, requiring some post-processing steps. 3D PARS solves this issue by combining 3D printing with robotics to create an end product capturing the designer’s exact specifications. Users can visualize what the 3D product will look like before anything is even created using a cognitive algorithm. If the end product is not exactly what you want, you can go back in and change the specifications to get closer to the desired end results and avoid any post-printing processing steps.

Dr. DeSilva now hopes to take this vision one step further. He wants to combine 3D printing, robotics, and bioprinting to cause disruptive medical innovation.