One of the most exciting future advances in science is 3-D bioprinting -- that is, the use of modified 3-D printers, which stack successive layers of material to create objects, or cells to construct living tissue. Researchers already have printed skin and vertebral disks and transplanted them into animal bodies successfully, but they're still years and possibly decades away from fashioning a complex organ such as a liver, kidney or heart for transplant, using a patient's own cells as raw material.
Nevertheless, Tony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, told the Washington Post in 2011 that he envisions transplantation someday following what he calls "the Dell computer model," in which a transplant surgeon will be able to order a complete organ with certain specs, just as he would pick out a hard drive or sound card for the PC on his desk. The biggest challenge, researchers say, is not in making the organ itself, but duplicating the complicated internal network of blood vessels that keeps a body part nourished and oxygenated. Some think a concerted government research effort -- the biological equivalent of the Manhattan Project -- could make it possible in as few as 10 years to print a transplantable human kidney.
But once that's accomplished, what's next may be even more astonishing. As bioprinting software pioneer Vladimir Mironov told the Post: "If one can bioprint functional human organ constructs, then bioprinting a whole human -- or whatever will be the name for such a creature -- is just a logical extension" [source: Berkowitz].