Gartner says that within two years, the rapid development of 3D printers in bioengineering will spark fierce ethical debate.
The research firm says that advances in "bioprinting" -- the application of 3D printers to produce living tissue and organs -- is quickly reaching a level that will prompt ethical debate on its use by 2016. At the same time, while the idea of printing our organs may be distasteful to some, the applications of the technology to create cheap, strong prosthetic limbs is likely to cause an explosion in demand for the technology.
"3D bioprinting facilities with the ability to print human organs and tissue will advance far faster than general understanding and acceptance of the ramifications of this technology," said Pete Basiliere, research director at Gartner.
"These initiatives are well-intentioned, but raise a number of questions that remain unanswered. What happens when complex 'enhanced' organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them? Who will ensure the quality of the resulting organs?"
In 2013, a 2-year-old received a windpipe built with her own stem cells, and the Hangzhou Dianzi University in China invented the biomaterial 3D printer Regenovo, which printed a working kidney that lasted four months. Regenovo aims to produce artificial organs suitable for transplant within the next decade.
The technology could be used to lessen the burden placed on healthcare services due to shortages in organ donation. However, the debate due to follow is likely to encompass political, moral and financial elements -- including whether organs should be grown using both stem cells and animal components, who should be allowed to 'print' organs for use by healthcare professionals, how safe the products will be, and whether intellectual property rights can play a role in bioprinting.