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Questacon demonstrates 3D printing of body parts

When you are 68 and a little battered by life's wear and tear there's something enormously attractive about today's discussion of the creation of new body parts using 3D photocopying.

I took a shopping bag to Wednesday's 3D BioPrinting: Printing Parts for Bodies talk and demonstrations at Questacon, hoping I might (for journalists are always being given bribes at these sorts of events) come away with some new 3D joints and ligaments. Perhaps there'd even be a prostate for me. Perhaps even several prostates to give to old friends as Christmas presents.

Alas, there were no give-aways at the event at teeming Questacon, but there were intellectual stimulations galore at this launch of the book and eBook 3D BioPrinting: Printing Parts for Bodies.

"The eBook is much prettier than the printed book" one of the authors bioethicist Professor Susan Dodds assured me. I assured her that that was also true of the glamorous online edition of The Canberra Times vis-a-vis its plain old print version.

At  Wednesday's event and before the splendidly goateed Dr Gordon Wallace spoke to me and then to the teeming attendees, experts worked at three 3D printers (very small, basic, commercially available ones) making 3D copies of really rather fiddly little objects. The printers' busy parts buzzed energetically to and fro over, say, a rubber replica of a baby's foot.

Dr Wallace is, impressively (listen to these titles!), Executive Director of the ARC Centre for Excellence for Electromaterials Science and the Materials Node of the Australian National Fabrication Facility based at the University of Wollongong. He's also Director of the Intelligent Polymer Research Institute.

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His areas of futuristic expertise are very exciting and as he speaks on the big subject, the big possibilities of 3D bioprinting, his excitement shows. His hands twirl in the air, his excitable goatee takes on a bobbling life of its own. He finds that "Every Friday in this field we go home astounded at what's happened in the week!" 

"3D printing has sort of exploded on to the world stage in the last few years," he enthused, above the screams of Questacon's fun-loving urchins.

"3D printing builds structures from the ground up using a much wider range of materials than traditional methods are capable of handling. And with that printing we want to print devices for medical applications, whether wearable devices or implantable devices. Those devices need to be very much customised, and 3D printing enables us to customise. For each individual application we will just scan the anatomy and print something that fits that anatomy ... or we can scan a defect where we want to repair things."

We are some way away (although every week's progress astounds) from bioprinting organs, like prostates, but there have already been 3D bioprinted objects used for structural applications like the replacement of jawbones and of wonky hips. But Dr Wallace is effervescent about workers in this arena being "on the cusp" of finding how to use these printing techniques in "highly functional" ways to make artificial organs or parts with "organ-like functions".

He gave freely on Wednesday of his dreams and ambitions for 3D bioprinting.

"What about," he bubbled, "the possibility of creating conduits for bone and muscle repair?"

"Or a conduit in the brain that assists with epilepsy detection and control? What if, as we move away from [just] structural components we can make [implantable] devices that are highly bioactive? Could we build devices that have drugs built into the device to be released at the right time in order to, say, fight inflammations?"

If all of this sounds a little theoretical to you dear reader (though Dr Wallace is sure these are dreams of wonders that really will come to pass, and soonish) he offers a highly practical structural application that is in the wings.

"One of our projects at the moment is centred around how we can make 3D prints of the bionic ear [Dr Graeme Parker's grand invention]. At the moment those technologies, those bionic ears, are made individually and have to be hand crafted, and so the ability to create them through 3D printing would have great advantages".

And, staying in the real world of the actually possible, the pretty eBook and its plain cousin open with the true story of Kaliba, born with a feeble left bronchial tube. The story of how his life has been saved with the implantation of a 3D printed bio-material sleeve (custom-made for him after CT scans were done of his of unique airways) is spine-tinglingly, heart-warmingly lovely.

Though a little disappointed at not having any prostates to take home I rejoiced to think as I left Questacon through the throngs of prepubescent screamers, that they will inherit a world in which medical miracles like these will be commonplace.

And rapture! This Wednesday visit to Questacon coincided with the very first day of controversial paid parking in the Triangle. Out of force of habit I got into the Triangle very early anticipating that as usual parking places would be as scarce as unicorns. On my Tuesday visit the Triangle had been parking Hell, with lots of bad-tempered opportunistic jousting).

But Wednesday's transformed Triangle car parks were deliciously space-rich. Thank you NCA! My timid Barina, which has always hated the jousting, purred with contentment as it chose the best of a thousand available pozzies.

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