Scientists are racing to make replacement human organs with 3D printers. But while the technology’s possibilities are exciting, already there are fears we could be ‘playing God’
Erik Gatenholm first saw a 3D bioprinter in early 2015. His father, Paul, a professor in chemistry and biopolymer technology at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, had bought one for his department. It cost somewhere in the region of $200,000. “My father was like, ‘This thing can print human organs,’” Gatenholm recalls, still awestruck. “I said, ‘Bullshit!’ Then it printed a little piece of cartilage. It wasn’t cartilage, but it was like, this could be cartilage. That was the moment when it was like, ‘This is frickin’ cool!’”
Gatenholm, who had long owned a regular 3D printer, decided then that he wanted to do something in 3D bioprinting. His language might be a bit Bill & Ted – he grew up between Sweden and the US, where his father is a visiting professor – but his intent and ambitions are very serious. Gatenholm had started his first biotech company aged 18 and he realised that if this machine had the potential to print organs, like his father said, then it had the potential to radically change the world of medicine.