Nano Girl Michelle Dickinson: Eating a 3D printed pancake

The printer used standard pancake batter as its "ink" and printed it on to a non-stick hot-plate. Photo / 123RF
The printer used standard pancake batter as its "ink" and printed it on to a non-stick hot-plate. Photo / 123RF

This week I ate a 3D printed pancake.

The printer used standard pancake batter as its "ink" and printed it on to a non-stick hot-plate.

The pancake was perfectly cooked and could be formed into any pattern or design.

3D printers work by gradually layering materials on top of each other to form a pre-designed three-dimensional shape.

Over the last 20 years, 3D printing has grown from a specialised manufacturing technique to a billion dollar industry, and can be used to make everything from plastic toys to space shuttle components.

As the technology becomes more commonplace, new printer 'ink' is being used to create 3D printed structures out of materials other than metals and plastics.

Pancake batter is one example, but other applications have the potential to significantly improve the quality of our lives.

Arthritis is the single greatest cause of disability in New Zealand. The disease, like other age-related mobility conditions, has a huge health and economic cost already, with these predicted to grow as our population changes.

By 2043 it is estimated the number of people aged over 65 in New Zealand will grow by nearly 70 percent, totalling over a third of our population.

Arthritis is caused by damage or loss of cartilage in our joints. Unlike our skin, cartilage has limited regenerative capacity, meaning it can't significantly heal or repair itself once damaged.

Current treatments range from surgical implantation of an artificial scaffold to encourage cartilage regeneration, through to full artificial joint replacement.

These implants can be challenging though - everyone's joints are subtly different, but understandably there are a limited range of sizes and shapes of implant available.

Made of artificial material, they can also occasionally lead to surgical and immunoinflammatory challenges.

New regenerative medicine techniques - including 3D printing - have the potential to deliver novel therapies for patients suffering from bone and cartilage damage, combining engineering with biology for an artificially created solution using natural materials.

3D printing of biological structures has the potential to change the medical treatment landscape.

In medical 3D printers, the inks can consist of stiff scaffolding material and cell-containing collagen gels.

When printed together they can create a cell-seeded mesh structure that is the exact shape and size required for the patient.

By placing the structure in an incubator, the cells can grow around the mesh, resulting in a biological cartilage matrix implant made from natural materials.

In New Zealand, researchers including Dr Tim Woodfield from the Christchurch Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering Group have been working on providing biological 3D printed cartilage solutions for several years.

The group develops bio-fabrication techniques which generate tissues made from patients' own cartilage and stem cells.

The New Zealand technique is unique as it creates tiny balls of tissue, each containing around half a million cells, which are then printed onto a scaffold to enable bigger and stronger samples of tissue to be grown.

Cells printed on their own can only grow to a limited size, but cells grown on scaffolds provide the tissue with mechanical stability making it more robust and able to exchange nutrients and growth factors.

The biggest jump for regenerative medical 3D printing still lies ahead.

The ultimate goal would be to engineer whole organs, meaning that, one day, transplant patients may not have to wait for a donor, but can instead receive a purpose-printed organ.

Most organs have dozens of cell types and a complex vascular structure, so even through 3D printing can now print with more than one cell type, the printing of replica organs is still a way off.

Pancakes though, are here today - and very tasty!

- NZ Herald

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