In our current series, exploring the potential dark side of 3D printing technology, we have previously explored the dangers of potential criminal gun manufacture using 3D printers. In the following blog post, we will explore the issue of bioethics and 3D printing.
Bioethics and 3D printing
Bioethics is defined as the ethics surrounding medical and biological research. The rapid rise of bioprinting has seen many debates spark up on the topic of bioethics and 3D printing. What are the moral and ethical implications of 3D printing? Such issues include whether there will be fair access to superior healthcare - will 3D printed medical treatments be easily accessible to all, or just too expensive to provide on a mass scale? Other people raise concerns about the safety of the 3D-printed biomaterial. In addition, other groups ask whether it is ethical to use 3D printed biomaterials at all.
A problem vs a solution
It is fairly easy to argue that 3D printing can potentially offer many needed solutions to current medical problems. For example, in one of our past posts we explored how 3D printers can be used to print off uniquely tailored organs, bones, and other physical matter that will not be rejected by the human body. Imagine a world in which people have easy access to healthy organs and do not have to rely on willing organ donors.
The potential benefits of using 3D printers in medicine are undeniable, but many do raise various dangers that we need to consider.
Issues of cost
3D bio-printing is time-consuming and as a result expensive, as Linda Griffith, Director of the Center of Gynepathology Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains in the Guardian:
"If you 3D print a dress, or a gun, it is pretty easy to tell right away if it works," she said. "The assays to tell whether bioprinting works are really, really time consuming and expensive."
The time-consuming nature of bioprinting may mean that the final product is expensive and can only be afforded by the richest in society; this, of course, brings up a serious ethical issue. If treatment is available, is it right that only some can afford it? Right to life and right to health are two of the most basic human rights and access to good healthcare should be available to all.
Issues of safety
Using 3D printers in medical cases raises some safety concerns, ABC eloquently notes the potential safety issues of 3D printed biomaterial:
“In the future, 3D printing may be used in combination with stem cell derived cell lines. How can we know in advance that these treatments are safe? Unlike the case of developing a new drug, a stem cell therapy can't be tested on a sizable number of healthy people prior to being tested on patients and then, finally, being made available as a standard treatment.”
Unlike traditional medical interventions, 3D-printed medical interventions may be hard to efficiently and swiftly test; there is always the possibility that the printed material may be rejected by the human body.
Although moral arguments are less commonly waged today, some groups of people hold ‘moral’ objections to 3D bioprinting. For example, some religious groups feel that bioprinting is a way for scientists to play God.
On the other side of the debate, bioprinting could effectively help millions of people suffering from serious medical illnesses. So, could we also not argue that we have a moral responsibility to embrace the most sophisticated and effective technologies available to us?