Honey, can you print my new blood vessels?

Novel engineering adds brief laser impulses to 3D, inkjet-printed blood vessels to form capillaries, resulting in a complete and functional artificial organ made of polymers and biomolecules.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
This polymer vessel can become an artificial blood vessel. Fraunhofer IOF

If you think that engineering functional human body parts using a printer and laser is a sign of the end of time, you might want to proceed with caution. If you think such a development portends the saving of lives, read on.

Because researchers from an interdisciplinary group of five Fraunhofer institutes in Germany are announcing their successful creation of completely functional blood vessels using 3D printing and intense laser impulses.

First, advances in 3D printing have enabled researchers to print organs inexpensively and quickly using a modified inkjet printer. As in, very modified.

Using special inks, the researchers were able to print a hybrid material containing a mixture of synthetic polymers and biomolecules right from the point of, well, conception. Having biofunctionalized tubes enables living cells to dock onto the material, which is key for the interaction of artificial and natural tissue.

The researchers then applied short, intense laser impulses to the material to stimulate the molecules in such a way as to create an actual network of tiny capillaries.

The end product? Fully functional artificial blood vessels made of polymers and biomolecules that can transport nutrients, which the team will be debuting at the Biotechnica Fair in October. And while they say we are still a long way out from being able to implant 3D-printed organs into live beings, the potential looks increasingly promising.