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3D printing with a purpose | Harrisburg University using 3D printers to help save lives

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From guns, to food, to prosthetics, almost every aspect of our lives is affected by the newest technology in 3-dimensional printing.

Blueprints posted online for how to reproduce a working, usable firearm is the controversial aspect of this technology, because in the wrong hands, a gun can take an innocent life.

But then there's the 3D printer that is saving lives, by printing human skin, and then some.

Leena Pattarkine is a professor of biotechnology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

She secured a research grant five years ago for faculty and students to develop technology that will make skin graft machines smaller and more affordable.

"Bio printers range anywhere from $400,000 to $500,00," says Dr. Leena.

Those printers are already printing human skin for skin graft patients.

But Dr. Leena and Doctor Glenn Mitchell, professor of Healthcare Informatics at Harrisburg University, are making the 'components' for a portable 3D printer.

It can then be used in developing countries, combat zones and more universities like Harrisburg U.

"It's a little bit like robots assembling robots," says Dr. Mitchell. "But it is possible to have the kit come with the minimal materials you need to put together the original printing, and print the rest of the materials you need to make biological skin grafts."

Dr. Leena's grad student Jacob Grove showed CBS21 how their prototype works.

"This printer itself is different from commercial printers. It's known as a rep wrap, which is a kind of self replicating or kinda a DIY printer, where some of the parts are made out of plastic that you can print," says Jacob. "So essentially, this printer can make parts to make another one of itself."

Using a plastic filament heated to close to 400-degrees, the "skin" is printed in layers from the bottom up and the computer is programmed to match the exact "landscape" of the wound to be covered.

In traditional grafts, the human skin comes from other parts of your body and it usually doesn't fit exactly, creating pockets that fill with fluid, that can lead to infection.

3D printed skin changes that.

"When you put it on, it fits perfectly and there's no air pockets and there's no way that fluid is going to build up under your graft," says Dr. Mitchell.

And now they're taking this project to the next level -- infusing people's own cells and biological material into the printed skin.

According to Dr. Mitchell, "We'll be able to produce organs that are made from materials that you won't react to and you can have replacement organs for things that fail without having to have all these expensive medicines and dangerous medicines really and it will really change people's lives when we get to that point."

Dr. Leena is expecting to get to that point in the next couple of years.

But, the speed in which this technology is moving is getting under some people's skin -- especially with the internet posting blue prints for a 3D printed gun in 2013.

That triggered a debate on whether technology like 3D printing can be a negative thing.

Dr. Leena says technology isn't evil, but if it ends up in the wrong hands, it can be used for that purpose.

"That doesn't mean people should stop making technology and developing technology with the fear that somebody can use it for a bad purpose," she says.

"As a scientist, our goal is to make it for better use, making it for betterment of human life, mankind, society, environment. But, we got to make sure it gets used in the right way."

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