Printing Body Parts: Frankenjet??

Sep 18th, 2012 | Posted by

I read with great interest the article in The Wall Street Journal today about bioprinting (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443816804578002101200151098.html?KEYWORDS=3d+printing). This offers great hope for critically ill patients and possible future relief for those of us whose natural sinews are reminding us of the law of entropy (read aches and pains). It also should give some pause to actuaries who are forecasting mortality tables for the next fifty years.

The article explains a little about this experimental printing technology that gave me a clearer picture than I had previously had of what printing body parts is really like. The article states, “in lab tests, bioengineers printed…patches of beating cardiac muscle” and “scientists are printing small 3-D clusters of liver cells suitable for toxicity testing.”

The possibility of printing body parts will offer additional challenges too. These are more of a social kind, particularly once the production of such moves into wider use. My mind wandered back to my cubicle days in an insurance company headquarters where thirty or so people shared a network printer. I remembered the cold sweat that broke out when I printed my Final Four Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket and ran to the nearest printer to find that it was not there. “Oh no, where did I last print a document? Ooops, was that the color-coded project Gantt chart using the advanced printer next to the CIO’s office? Arrggh!”

Imagine what complications will arise as researchers begin to share these expensive printers. I can hear the complaints now: “Bob went to lunch and left a beating heart on his desk again and I can’t shut it up. It’s really getting on my nerves and I can’t concentrate on my work.”

Every network printer naturally has a graveyard of documents next to it, you know the stacks of unclaimed, abandoned printouts next to it. In the future, these will be real graveyards, piled with miscellaneous body parts looking for a home.

Then there will be the opposite problem of the body snatcher. We have all had that critical, confidential piece of printed work that was picked up by mistake (or, in more ruthless corporate cultures, on purpose) by someone else. What happens when you print a couple of arteries and go to the printer to find them gone, swept up with the stomach and intestine bits produced just prior? Do you hit print again, or begin a search of the floor to find the wayward tubes?

Finally, there is the infrequent user problem who has a private printer in their office (this is usually the boss). On the day, the personal printer is out for repair and the administrative assistant is not at their post. Boss needs just two copies of an important piece of work. Since the boss doesn’t use any kind of printer very often, confusion results and instead of printing 2 copies, he/she prints 200 (typing numbers into that little box next to “number of copies” is so hard!). These days, no problem if 198 copies of a graph are tossed into the network printer graveyard. But, what do you do with 198 fingers, legs, or knees?

I shudder when I think of the mass confusion and hysteria coming, but am sure that, somehow, Office Administration will work out an elegant solution.

Please reply with your horror stories in the land of Frankenjet. In the run up to Halloween, we’ll do a follow up post of the best ones received!

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