By Joseph Cooney

Australia is looking to lead the way in the future of medicine, with the Queensland University of Technology offering the world’s first international masters in biofabrication.

The field, which includes the 3D printing of replacement body parts, has progressed rapidly in recent years, with the recreation of complete organs –  the ultimate dream for researchers.

Prof Hutmacher and his research team
Prof Hutmacher and his team are at the forefront of biofabrication research

QUT has joined forces with three of the world’s leading research universities in Wollongong, Germany and the Netherlands.

The Brisbane-based institution’s head of biofabrication research, Professor Dietmar Hutmacher, says the degree will give Australian students a leading edge in the technology.

“Graduates will be at the forefront of an industry that will always be in high demand given the ageing populations around the world and which cannot be easily replicated by any other country,” Prof Hutmacher said.

“This degree is a vital step in ensuring Australia is a high-value, high-tech manufacturer in the future.”

The future of medicine

Researchers at QUT's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Researchers at QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation are already printing body parts

Biofabrication is a process of regrowing human tissue using custom 3D printed scaffolds infused with a patient’s stem cells.

The scaffold will not work on its own, but the technology researchers have developed is to add growth factors, cells and bioactive molecules in order to make them regenerate the patient’s bone or tissue.

Senior research fellow Dr Mia Woodruff says the innovation has significant advantages in comparison to previously used techniques where parts need replacing after a certain amount of time.

“These scaffolds are bio-compatible, we can implant them into a bone defect site and as the bone grows into that scaffold, the scaffold will slowly dissolve over time,” Dr Woodruff said.

“We’re trying to afford technologies in order to give the clinicians a better approach to bone tissue engineering.”

Professor Hutmacher says the technology provides significant opportunities for a wide range of patients.

“Biofabrication can be used to repair cartilage, bone, muscles, nerves and skin that have been damaged by trauma, disease or cancer,” Prof Hutmacher said.

Opportunity for breast cancer survivors

Prof Hutmacher and Dr Whiteside discuss breast implant scaffold
Prof Hutmacher says Dr Whiteside will be one of the first recipients of the new breast implant

Professor Hutmacher and his team are leading the way in using the process to print implants for breast cancer survivors, with clinical trials expected to take place in the next two years.

“At QUT, we are already researching the use of scaffolds to regrow breast tissue in women who’ve had surgery for breast cancer,” Prof Hutmacher said.

The use of the technology for breast implants allow for the closer replication of a patient’s previous proportions, and greater longevity of the parts.

Breast cancer survivor and mastectomy recipient Dr Eliza Whiteside says she is excited by the developments in the field.

“The current types of breast implants will only last up to about 10 years,” Dr Whiteside said.

“I’m getting close to that ten year mark, and my dream is that I’ll be putting my hand up as the first person, at least in Australia, to have this type of implant.”

3D printed hearts in the future

Melt electrospinning machine
The technique of infusing stem cells onto a 3D printed scaffold paves the way for further development

Biofabrication is still in its early stages but the ultimate goal is to use 3D printing to create artificial organs such as lungs, kidneys and even hearts.

Many reports have stated the technology will be ready within the next decade, but Prof Hutmacher is hesitant in getting carried away with the hype.

“With the right investment into the technology and the education of the program, we predict it will be possible in the next 50 years to regrow [entire] organs,” Prof Hutmacher said.

The US Department of Health and Human Services reports that in the United States alone, 18 people die per day waiting for organ transplants.

But the technology also holds great promise for medical research.

The hope is that synthetic organs will eventually replace less accurate methods for drug and vaccine testing, such as tests on animals or synthetic models.