Med School Goes from Grave-Digging to 3D Printing

American medical students gave up robbing graves for dead bodies several centuries ago, but physicians still need human corpses for anatomy class and practicing surgery. The U.S. Army's own physicians have their eyes set on a more futuristic solution — 3D printers capable of making artificial human body parts such as muscle, bone and even organs.

Such artificial body parts would "ideally not be actual biological tissues," but instead would consist of materials that could physically simulate the feel of flesh and bone. Success in printing out entire body part sections containing bone, muscle, skin and blood vessels could lead to lower medical training costs and cut back on the need for animal or human cadavers.

"If such technology were possible, a wide variety of human anatomy sections could be printed on demand," according to a U.S. Defense Health Program solicitation for small business issued on May 11.

The 3D-printed artificial body parts would also ideally allow for normal CT or MRI medical scans, so that physicians could practice interpreting the scan images before diving in with scalpels. The U.S. military effort could also presumably benefit American physicians and medical schools back on the home front.

3D printing offers much opportunity for modern medicine with its ability to create almost any object layer-by-layer based on a digital design. Researchers have already experimented with printing artificial blood cells, bone fracture fixes and human jawbones for use in treating real patients.

Much 3D printing work has already taken place at individual university labs and private startups, but the U.S. government recently announced it would set aside up to $60 million for a new 3D printing institute. That effort is led by the U.S. military's Air Force Research Laboratory, but also has funding from civilian agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy.

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