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Fab Lab printing the future

Last updated 15:33 27/08/2012

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Ways to build new human organs and changing cells to solve human problems were some of the ideas discussed a 'fab lab' in Wellington in the past week.

Massey University's School of Design has set up the first digital fabrication facility in Wellington, affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Australasia. Such labs include laser cutters, milling machines and 3D printers which create three-dimensional objects from computer files by adding layers of material.

3D printing technology involves "printing" parts and devices using computational power, lasers and powdered metals and plastics.

Already patient-specific parts such as hip joints are being made, and some supporters see the potential for much manufacturing to move into neighbourhoods.

Participants at a public symposium in Wellington today as part of the fab lab event heard about silver ink that can be used for printing high-performance electronics, ways to "bioprint" human organs, and efforts to design cells from scratch to solve human problems.

Robin Levin, speaking on behalf of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, said that if bioprinting worked it would have enormous value for people who needed transplants, trauma sufferers, and cancer patients.

Body parts that had already been grown and transplanted included urinary bladders, trachea and blood vessels, while parts coming included kidneys, livers and bones. There was also the hope of being able to repair organs in the body.

Speaking by video link, Dr John Glass, from the synthetic biology programme at the J Craig Venter Institute in the US, said researchers aspired to develop the capacity to change the hardware - cells - of living systems.

Cells had already been designed that were used as factories, for instance for the production of an anti-malarial drug, but while short biological circuits could be made quite predictably, as the circuits involved more genes and enzymes they become less and less reliable for producing the desired materials.

Biology was possibly the most complex of all sciences, and even the simplest of all known cells had thousands of moving parts, Glass said.

The goal now was to be able to build a true minimal cell, to be able to learn the first principles of life. With that understanding more and more complicated cells could be built.

After gaining a better understanding of life to increase the predictability of biological circuits, the work could be used in areas such as energy, bioremediation, materials science, vaccine discovery, and stem cell therapy.

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