Printers Printing Humans

Today’s BBC.com has an article about a lab in Germany that has for the first time successfully created artificial blood vessels on a 3D printer. They will apparently be very helpful in organ transplants. One of the scientists involved is quoted saying:

“We are establishing a basis for applying rapid prototyping to elastic and organic biomaterials,”

Wow.

Not that this is a surprising direction. This kind of thing was inevitable, and there is plenty more tissue engineering to come. But this is still an astonishing statement.

We are now printing living matter. Body parts. Human body parts.

We are designing those body parts on a computer and then printing them. Yes it is a modified 3D printer, with some specialized lasers, but it is still essentially the same technology used in rapid prototyping in general. Except the “ink” includes biomolecules.

In my book I write about how the integrity of our human being is to some extent the great frontier in the recombinant age. This is already a familiar idea, the human-as-cyborg having been kicking around in various forms since Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein back in 1818. More recently, academics like Donna Haraway and inventors like Ray Kurzweil and Steve Mann have been exploring how we are all becoming Frankensteins in one way or another. How we are using technology to remix our bodies and our being. Not just through the introduction of prostheses, which are now very widespread indeed, (think cochlear implants, pacemakers, artificial hips and knees, etc.) but also by taking neurochemical drugs created in labs and even eating genetically modified food. Food that on some level must genetically modify those of us who eat it as well.

The fusing of remix culture with genomics and rapid bio-prototyping, however, threatens to take things to a new level. Maybe one day we will print people! Maybe we will all become digital Dr. Frankensteins. No need for Igor to go down to the crypt hunting for recently deceased flesh. Just pull down a pancreas – or a person – from the web and hit print.

This is crazy talk, of course. Just fantasy. And a pretty scary fantasy at that. But it will never happen. We will never actually print humans or human body parts. How could we?

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