The printer isn't much larger than what is seen in offices and homes around the country but what Cornell professor Larry Bonassar and his students produce in their lab would have been science fiction just a few years ago. Bonassar developed a 3-D printing method to make a precisely modeled replacement ear. Like all printers, the Cornell lab uses a form of ink - but their ink is alive.
"That gel that we're printing out of the printer or using in the mold actually has living cells. So what's coming out of the printer is actually alive when we print with it. And we can either use it to directly implant it into a patient or we can grow it in an incubator for a while to grow it before it gets implanted," said Bonassar
A 3-D scan of a human ear produces a detailed computer model and then the polymer containing living cells can be mixed and synched with a computer for printing. Bonassar says the technology could be life changing for children born with Microtia - the lack of an external ear.
"The reason the ear is a really good demonstration of this technology is that it has a very complicated shape, that it has complicated mechanics as well.you ear is remarkably durable and flexible but still stiff enough to hold its shape," said Bonassar.
Cornell's 3-D printer is incredibly high tech but at the end of the day it is still a printer and it can have many of the same problems you would have at home.
"Just like any other print head - sometimes the ink clogs and sometimes you have to reformulate the ink and put a new ink cartridge in," said Bonassar. "And sometimes you run out of ink when you're printing."
Bonassar says the that since 3-D biomedical printing could move into the mainstream very quickly since the idea is based on concepts most people are already familiar with.
"If you can make a technology that can be used by tens of thousands of people to make millions of implants - then you can really affect a lot of people's lives," said Bonassar.
The replacement ears are still being evaluated but Bonassar believes this is just scratching the surface of what 3-D biomedical printing could accomplish in the years ahead.