Does 3D Bioprinting Work? Insights & Applications

At first glance, 3D bioprinting might seem like a concept straight out of a science fiction novel. The notion that we can now print living tissues, organs, and constructs using bio-inks and printers is a groundbreaking leap in medical science and technology. This innovative process transcends traditional boundaries, offering not just a new way to create and test drugs but also holding the promise of revolutionizing organ transplantation.

The precision of 3D printing, combined with the complexities of biological materials, brings us closer to solving some of the most persistent challenges in the field of medicine.

“When you see it, you definitely have a feeling that you’re in the future,” says Kevin Coker, founder and chief executive officer at Proxima Clinical Research. “I’ve been fortunate to be around it for the last five years now, and I’m just absolutely amazed at what researchers and companies have been able to achieve. Now, we even have hospitals that have their own custom bioprinting shops for surgery.”

And it works exactly like it sounds. 3D bioprinting uses additive manufacturing techniques to fabricate tissue and organ constructs using biomaterials. This technology harnesses the precision of 3D printing to layer living cells, referred to as bioinks, to create structures that can mimic natural tissues in both functionality and structure. Its vast and varied applications range from tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to drug testing and developmental biology.

This interdisciplinary field blends expertise from biology, material science, engineering, and computer science to refine and enhance bioprinting technologies. As research continues, the focus is not only on improving the resolution and fidelity of printed tissues but also on developing bioinks that can more accurately mimic the cellular environment, thereby promoting cell survival and integration post-printing.

Keep reading to learn more about bioprinting, current applications, ethical concerns, and what the future might hold for this pioneering field.

Meet The Expert: Kevin Coker, JD, MPH

Kevin Coker is the founder and chief executive officer at Proxima Clinical Research. Over his career, Coker has served in several executive roles. Previously, he was chief executive officer and director of MolecularMatch, a software company dedicated to helping laboratories interpret next-generation sequencing tests for clinical practice. He served as the vice president and oncology franchise lead for Worldwide Clinical Trials, a global CRO working in over 50 countries, and vice president of McKesson/US Oncology research. 

Coker is currently a board director for Volumetric, a 3D bioprinting company focused on making the world’s first 3D printed liver and is an advisor for Bioverge, an investment platform focused on life science companies.

Current State of Bioprinting

Despite its recent arrival in medicine, bioprinting has already made significant strides. Current applications include creating personalized skin grafts for burn victims, developing models for drug testing and disease research, and producing tissues for transplantation. Bioprinting has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach medical treatments by providing a more precise and effective means of repairing or replacing damaged tissue.

One of the early applications of 3D bioprinting was cartilage: “They started with creating cartilaginous bioprinting materials. One of the first things to print was an ear, which could be used as a replacement for people who have had injuries,” explains Coker. Now, we’re talking about printing much more complex and complicated structures. Hospitals are creating their own labs to have these custom-made organ-like products available for surgeons. It is absolutely mind-blowing.”

However, there are many challenges researchers have had to tackle. “We have resolved several challenges with the technology. One of those is printing with enough resolution to get cellular structures. Before, it was very difficult to print at such a small level,” says Coker. “It’s almost like a pixel on your TV. Now, we can print at a microscopic level of resolution to essentially allow single-cell printing to occur. We have also solved several other hurdles with regard to printing different cell types and print structures for vascularization or innervation of nerves. The industry has moved forward significantly in the last five years.”

He continues, “A number of companies have developed the ability to print at depth, so not only are you printing a small enough resolution, where you can print at the cellular level, but you can now print layer on top of layer to have a significant amount of tissue build up to develop organoid structures and hopefully, ultimately, organs. That’s ultimately what everyone is hoping for the next few years.”

How 3-D Bioprinting Works

The bioprinting process begins with creating a 3D model of the desired tissue or organ using imaging techniques such as MRI or CT scans. This digital model is then sent to the printer, which uses bioinks containing living cells and other biomaterials to print layer by layer, following the computer-generated design. The 3D printers are very similar to traditional ones, but instead of using a filament, they are designed to use a liquid or a gel. “It is a proprietary bioink that flows through the printer. It comes out almost like water from a hose,” explains Coker. “The bioink contains a polymer that reacts with other agents, whether that be air or light, and then turns into a solid or semi-solid state.”

The bioink is truly what makes the whole process work. “They mix the ink along with cellular tissue. The challenge has been to make cells get through the nozzle and then polymerize,” he says. “One of the clever things that Volumetric Biotechnologies did was use light to polymerize the material utilizing food coloring. It was groundbreaking and disruptive for them at the time.”

Applications for 3D Bioprinting

Bioengineering, particularly 3D bioprinting, is advancing at an unprecedented pace, driven by continuous technological innovations and interdisciplinary collaborations. This rapid progression is delineated by the exponential growth in research output, patent filings, and clinical applications that have emerged over the last decade. Advances in biomaterials, design software, and printing technologies have collectively enabled the creation of more complex, functional, and personalized tissues and organs. “It has been hard to keep up, to be honest,” admits Coker. “A great resource for learning about the newest advancement is Jenny Chen’s website, 3DHEALS. She keeps track of all the things we can now print. I even saw an article by her recently about printing hair follicles.”  

Currently, the list of things that can be 3D bioprinted include:

  • Skin tissues for grafts and regenerative medicine
  • Cartilage for joint repair and replacement
  • Bones, including complex structures for cranial and facial reconstruction
  • Blood vessels and microvascular networks
  • Heart valves and cardiac tissue for repair and testing
  • Liver tissue for disease modeling and drug screening
  • Kidney and pancreas tissues for understanding and treating organ diseases
  • Corneas for eye repair and research
  • Nerve tissue for repairing damaged nerves and spinal cord injuries

Ethical Considerations in 3D Bioprinting

As with any new technology, 3D bioprinting raises ethical concerns regarding its use and potential impact on society. A primary concern is the affordability and accessibility of 3D bioprinting technology. Currently, it remains an expensive and complex process, making it inaccessible for many people who may benefit from it. As the technology advances and becomes more widespread, it will be essential to ensure that it is accessible to everyone who could benefit from it. 

There are also concerns about the long-term effects of using 3D bioprinted tissues and organs in humans. Extensive research and testing will need to be done to ensure their safety and efficacy before they can be used in clinical settings. “To what extent can we develop an organ and implant it in a person? How can you know that someone is ready for that? If you are a patient who needs a new liver or heart, and you have been on the transplant list for a while, you may say that you are ready for it today because it is your last hope. That’s a huge responsibility to ensure the technology is ready and beneficial,” explains Coker. “Like AI, we don’t know where this technology will go, and we need to be cautious.” 

Future of 3D Bioprinting

The potential for 3D bioprinting to revolutionize the healthcare industry is immense. As the technology continues to advance, it has the potential to significantly improve patient outcomes and quality of life by providing personalized and functional tissue and organ replacements. “We are in a very exciting time. The hardware technology and the ability to print organ-like structures is very close,” says Coker. “However, I think the gap that exists today is a monetary one. It will take investors and investment to help us bridge from where we are today into what will be a marketed product.” 

He continues, “ Right now, we’ve got the ability to print organelles, small organoid structures, and cartilaginous material. We need more investors to take a bit more risk, invest in more companies and more technologies, and help to bring this all together. Five years ago, it was a technological problem, but today we just need the financing to bring printed organs to the market.”

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


At, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth and insightful articles since 2019, aiding prospective students to navigate the complexities of choosing the right healthcare degree. Her recent work includes topics such as the ethics of gene editing and physician assistant’s fight for autonomy.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.

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