3D printing technologies have come a long way since their earliest incarnations as rapid product prototype makers. It's now shaping up as the next disruptive technology and in medical science, 3D printing has huge potential. The latest advance comes from University of California, San Diego Nanoengineering Professor Shaochen Chen, whose group has demonstrated the ability to print three-dimensional blood vessels in seconds.

If the technique proves scalable, it could revolutionize regenerative medicine. Imagine being able to recover from a heart attack by replacing your faulty aortic valve with a brand new one, made of your own cells. No more pig valves, no more mechanical solutions, no more waiting for a donor. The donor is you.

How does it work? All printers require feedstock. For 2D printers, that’s ink. For 3D, it can be plastic, some metals – or in this case, biocompatible hydrogels. What’s new here is the adaptation of techniques ideal for printing large objects – such as car parts or tools for the home – to a micro and nano scale, in order to print the tiny veins responsible for shipping oxygen and nutrients around the body.

The new approach, reported in Advanced Materials, is called dynamic optical projection stereolithography (DOPsL). A computer projection system works with tightly controlled micromirrors to beam light onto a selected part of a solution. The solution contains photo-sensitive biological polymers and cells. As the light hits, the polymers harden, one layer at a time, and continuously. The result? Much faster printing. That separates the approach from another medical 3D printing model, the two-photon photopolymerization, which can take hours to fabricate a part.