There are some remarkable bio-medical breakthroughs taking place in universities and research and development laboratories around the world in the field of bio-engineering. While 3D printing in plastic and metal is nothing new, printing living tissues and organs is a new frontier entirely.

  • For a while now, scientists have succeeded in creating skeleton structures of organs and then printing living cells onto it eg. a nose, an ear, a lung, kidneys and skin
  • There is now innovative wound healing from a bedside 3D skin printer
  • In April 2019 researchers from Tel Aviv University 3D printed an entire heart with cells, blood vessels and chambers, albeit the size of a rabbit heart
  • The team at Carnegie Mellon University recently developed a new 3D bio-printing method to allow them to print with collagen, which makes up every single tissue in the human body
  • Wearable technology is another field of bio-engineering which includes the development of smart fabrics and smart clothing. Scientists and the University of Maryland, College Park, have developed the first textile that automatically changes its structure in response to external conditions. This self-regulating fabric was made from infrared-sensitive yarn that has the ability to react to temperature and humidity. When the micro-environment between a person’s skin and the fabric changes, the strands tighten and create gaps in the yarn to release more heat or they expand to keep the heat inside. The yarn has a coating of polymer nanotubes making it adaptive. Imagine the end of layering your clothing! And with global warming this could be very helpful, let alone for the person who travels internationally and will therefore have to take fewer clothes with them.
  • If we are able to regulate our temperature at an individual level by wearing smart fabrics, we may be able to reduce energy usage by buildings that use air conditioning by up to 15% which is a significant energy saving.
  • The weight loss industry is in for something innovative with transdermal patches to reduce the obesity epidemic. They are under development at the Nanyang University of Singapore. The patches are loaded with anti-obesity compounds normally administered through injection or orally. Now when the hundreds of micro-needles in the patch are pressed against the skin for two minutes where they then dissolve, they release a fat dissolving agent into the white fat underneath the skin layer. Within about five days the white fat is turned into energy-burning brown fat.  The patches are currently being tested in mice where the fat mass decreased by 30%, weight gain was reduced and the mice had lower blood cholesterol and fatty acids.
  • Smart materials are being developed for use in the building industry that will help buildings to breathe like plants and insects regulating the internal temperature with less reliance on air conditioners, reducing energy usage.

This is just a tiny glimpse at some of the groundbreaking research and development on the go that will, quite literally, change our lives. For more information on growth industries read Future-proof Your Child for the 2020s and beyond (Penguin Random House, 2019).

Information gleaned from an article in The Star newspaper Tech News column by Prof Louis C H Fourie, 20 August 2019