The future of 3D printing is closer than many of us realize. It also involves a lot of body parts.

It’s already possible to print prosthetic hands, casts for broken bones, parts of custom running shoes and even edible food, not to mention an action figure that looks just like you or a Lego figure with your head on it. What’s next?

Paul Bates, lead development engineer at UL and a 3D printing expert, says the possibilities are nearly endless. Here’s a roundup of some of the most interesting ones.

Body parts

3D printers are being used to spit out everything from vertebrae to ears. One Australian neurosurgeon recently placed two custom 3D-printed vertebrae in a patient to replace two cancer-ridden vertebrae.


In 2015 a young boy in China who was born with a miniature ear got a 3D-printed silicone ear to hold up his glasses. And now doctors at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine have printed a “living” ear.


Organs

3D-printed organs are one of the big hopes for this technology. “Even today, people are printing cells that are portions of an organ,” Bates says. “They are 3D printing liver cells. They’re not being implanted in anyone, but they’re using them on initial medical trials.”

3D bioprinters are designed to print cells in patterns that will ultimately be used to create organs or other body tissues. The bioprinters are different from standard 3D printers in that they don’t typically accommodate other uses or ingredients. In other words, you can’t use a bioprinter to print a soap dish or coaster.

Related: How Safe is 3D-Printed Food?

Anthony Atala, MD, senior researcher on a new study about bioprinters, told HealthDay the hope is to have 3D printers that can churn out any kind of human tissue to replace body parts damaged by trauma, disease or birth defects.

But bioprinters, so far, have two big limitations. First, they can’t print the blood vessels found in human tissue. Without those blood vessels, organs can’t function. Second, "if you try to make something that's larger, it turns gooey and falls apart," Glenn Green, MD, an associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Michigan, told HealthDay.

Dentures

3D printing also could become the go-to method for making dentures and individual false teeth, Bates says.

“The unique thing about them is that they’re custom-made for your mouth, produced very quickly and more accurately than with traditional technologies,” he says.

Prosthetics

3D-printed prosthetic hands and arms, some printed for as little as $50, have changed countless lives.

An organization called e-NABLE, founded in 2013 by Jon Schull, a research scientist based at Rochester Institute of Technology, is made up of 3D printing volunteers around the globe who use their own time to create free 3D-printed prosthetic hands for those in need. Several thousand volunteers have delivered prosthetic hands to people in 37 countries, according to their website.


Open safety questions

Bates acknowledges there are potentially major safety concerns associated with printing body parts and organs. In the case of human organs, for example, it’s impossible to know whether man-made ingredients will act the same as natural organs and cells.

“You have to understand whether it [the substance] has the exact same characteristics,” Bates says. “You have to figure if it would respond the same way as what’s inside a body.”

Related: Buying a 3D Printer? UL Has Some Safety Advice

And there’s a need to balance the positives with potential negatives. For example, “when you produce a prosthetic and you 3D print it, you need to determine whether it was a solid [defect-free] print,” Bates says. “If people are going to use it to grip something, and the fingers weren’t printed properly, it could cause injury.”

While the idea of being able to print organs, body parts and prosthetics is mind-blowing, it’s important for 3D printers “to deal in reality and have due diligence,” he says.

Looking ahead, however, Bates is bullish on 3D printing’s prospects. He believes the risks are far outweighed by the virtues. In fact, he picks for 3D printing for the win. “3D printing has the capability to perform better than anything produced in the traditional way.”

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Don Reisinger is a longtime technology journalist and product reviewer.