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Will 3D Printed Facial Transplants Be Possible?

Facial transplants are beset with biological difficulties, including the risk of rejection of host material (those who have received facial transplants require high doses of immunosuppressive drugs for life). There are also complexities associated with selecting the correct characteristics, covering biological and physical aspects like blood type, age, skin tone and hair color.

Nevertheless around 30 have been made possible through pioneering surgery. The first facial transplant was in 2005, carried out in France. This early work has been built upon and the techniques are becoming more sophisticated and the faces ore ‘life like.’

An alternative way of reconstructing a face could be through additive (or 3D) printing. To date, parts of faces have been developed through such techniques, but not an entire face. With partial constructs, custom-printed models, guides, plates and implants have been successfully created and used to help with facial reconstruction surgery.

What about a complete human face? To carry this out, stem cells would be required. The types of stem cells would be pluripotent types, those that could renew themselves indefinitely and also generate nearly every kind of cell in the body.

To achieve stem-cell derived three dimensional printed faces would require technology that is not yet available. However, medical advances are heading in this direction. One example is with 3D tissue culture systems. These use bio-scaffolds to allow cells to grow in ways that produce tissues of certain dimensions and structures.

Writing in Live Science, scientist Sebastian Greenhough (Glasgow Caledonian University),  thinks a fully printed face is a very real future possibility: “combining cells and structural proteins (sometimes referred to as bio-inks) to print an entire face from a template generated in software.”

On this basis, perhaps, a 3D printed face could soon be possible.

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.