Smart printing solutions such as using synthetic DNA gel to 3D print organs are great in principle, but are they ethical?

A recent article surrounding the development of smart printing solutions, particularly the use of synthetic DNA gel for printing artificial organs is undoubtedly very exciting and ‘i,ROBOT-esque’, but putting Will Smith aside for a minute (apologies ladies!), does the development of superior smart printing solutions for the medical industry raise ethical questions?

A big question surrounding the development of ‘personalised medicine’ is cost, producing prosthetic limbs for example is very expensive, in the UK we have the NHS – but this only covers a certain standard/level of prosthetic limb. On the private market there are far superior limbs that are currently restricted only to the wealthy/privileged. The development of smart printing solutions such as 3D printing would reduce the cost of producing prosthetic limbs, and even orthopedic surgery, thus reducing criticism of the rich/poor divide.

The topic of synthetic DNA gel used via a 3D bio printer goes a step further than prosthetic limbs though, and looks at the ability to print organs for transplant. This technology could also be developed in order to replace animal testing, a big ethical and political issue that has raged for many years. We giveth with one hand, and taketh away with another though, as this opens up the ethical debate surrounding the safety of 3D printing treatments and human enhancement. Extensive testing would be needed before we could consider transplanting an artificial organ, such as a kidney, to a human. The human body is designed to reject foreign bodies – as is the case with many ‘standard’ human organ transplants.

So what of human enhancement? How far should we go, is it time to go RoboCop? Do we start to replace bones with titanium to prevent breaks, as opposed to just being used to repair damage? Do we improve muscle tissue so that they don’t become fatigued as easily, how would this impact athletes and the rulings in events such as the Olympics? Not all countries would be able to afford the technology so wouldn’t stand a chance against artificially enhanced athletes. This is all without considering the potential impact from a military point of view, stronger, faster, fitter soldiers would give distinct advantages to any army.

So in summary, smart printing solutions have very clear benefits from a medical point of view, but it is important to consider the potential moral issues surrounding the development of such technology as some may well be more interested in what they can gain, rather than how they can help others.