The exploding technology trend of 3D printing, which has already been used to manufacture everything from food to jewelry, has made its way into the realm of biomedical research, with one California company recently announcing that it had "bioprinted" 3D liver cells.

The San Diego-based company Organovo says it has used the technology behind 3D printing to create samples of liver cells that function as they would in a human.

The firm presented its findings at the Experimental Biology conference in Boston in April.

"We have demonstrated the power of bioprinting to create functional human tissue that replicates human biology better than what has come before," Organovo said in a news release.


A still image from a simulation demonstrating how Organovo's bioprinter injects the 'bio ink' into a lattice to create a 3D cell structure that resembles real liver tissue. (Organovo)

The company's researchers used a gel to build three types of liver cells and arranged them into the same kind of three-dimensional cell architecture found in a human liver. Although not fully functional, the 3D cells were able to produce some of the same proteins as an actual liver does and interacted with each other and with compounds introduced into the tissue as they would in the body.

That means biomedical researchers could potentially use the tissue to test drugs or investigate the effect of certain diseases.

Organovo's researchers are not the first to apply 3D printing to biomedicine. Doctors at the University of Michigan last year used a 3D printer to build a synthetic trachea for a child with a birth defect that had collapsed her airway, and as scientists and engineers get more familiar with the technology its uses will no doubt grow.

To hear more about how Organovo made its 3D liver, watch the interview above with the company's CEO, Keith Murphy, on CBC's Lang & O'Leary Exchange.