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TORONTO - Three-dimensional printers have already begun addressing present-day demands around the world by churning out everything from food to firearms, but Canada's contributions seem geared toward different times.
Canadian researchers in medicine and paleontology are hard at work pioneering projects intended to either make life easier in the future or shed light on the past.
Innovations emerging from Canadian hospitals and university labs have potential to ease the pain of severe burns and joint replacements, while experiments scheduled to begin this year in a Canadian museum will deepen understanding of a poorly understood dinosaur that lived and moved in water.
The common thread between these divergent projects is a piece of technology that has already made international headlines for its versatility.
Three-dimensional printers, which use chemical compounds in place of ink to reproduce 3D models of computer-generated files, have been put to work in fields ranging from architecture to archiving.
The U.S.-based Smithsonian institution has begun an effort to catalogue its vast collection through 3D printing with a view to making its exhibits accessible to a broader audience. A British company has developed a 3D-printed material resembling marble and already produces enough annual output to construct 12 two-storey buildings.
Other enterprising individuals have managed to produce guns, clocks, clothing and even chocolate using devices that work in the home.
Canadian 3D-printing pioneers may not have attracted as much attention to date, but their work promises to capture public attention in the years to come.
A team of researchers led by staff at Toronto's Mount Sinai hospital have developed a technique for recreating replacement joints using a patient's own tissues. The process hinges, however, upon a bone replacement created by a 3D printer.
Dr. Rita Kandel, chief of the hospital's Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said a joint is comprised of two parts - bone and cartilage. Present-day joint replacements rely on metal or plastic prosthetic parts to take the place of the damaged bone, most of which wear out over time and cause more pain for the patient.
Kandel and a team of researchers have devised a way to print a bone replacement using a calcium phosphate compound that has many of the same properties as the human skeleton.
That bone is then used as a natural scaffolding for replacement cartilage, which is regenerated from the patient's stem cells.
The 3D-printed part is both porous and biodegradable, Kandel said, adding it will dissolve over time as the patient's natural bone regrows.
"The bone reattaches to the cartilage that was there, and you completely reconstruct a normal joint using the patient's own cells," Kandel said. "So there's no metals or plastic and no typical way of failure that's found in these prostheses."
Kandel and her team have successfully created new knee joints for animals and hope to apply the procedure to humans in the next few years.
These next few years may also usher in another quantum leap in medical care thanks to 3D printing. A team of researchers led by graduate students at the University of Toronto have developed a printer that produces a tissue closely resembling human skin.
Stem cells or other genetic matter are combined with calcium chloride to produce a soft tissue that can be adjusted to different thicknesses and textures.
Dr. Marc Jeschke, a burn surgeon at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital and close collaborator on the project, said the technology's primary application would be to treat patients suffering from severe burns.
The procedure would reduce hospital wait times, reduce the need for painful skin grafts and revolutionize modern-day approaches to burn treatment, he said.
Testing is still in the early stages, with large-scale use still expected to be at least a decade away. Still, Jeschke is brimming with optimism about the printer's potential impact in the field.
"If we are successful in this entire picture, we will definitely change the way we care for burn patients throughout the world," he said. "The bigger picture of this technology is dramatic, it's tremendous, it's incredible."
Not all 3D-printing efforts are focused on future medical innovations. Researchers in Alberta are hoping the technology can help them unlock some historical secrets as well by shedding light on one of the world's lesser-understood dinosaurs.
Plesiosaurs did not roam the land like their more famous counterparts, but spent most of their days in water.
Donald Henderson, curator of dinosaurs at Alberta's Royal Tyrrell Museum, said little is known to date about how the species was able to navigate its aquatic habitats, adding debate centres on whether the animals relied on a back fin to stay afloat.
Henderson, in partnership with the University of Calgary, plans to print various plesiosaur models, some of which feature the fin in question. The models will then be put through various tests in a flume tank, and Henderson hopes the results will advance the world's knowledge of a little-understood species.
Jessica Theodor, a paleontologist at the University of Calgary who is collaborating on the project, said more in-depth knowledge of the plesiosaur has present-day implications as well for the scientific community.
"They provide another example of different shapes possible for marine tetrapods, so understanding how they could swim is important in understanding different ways that vertebrates can move in aquatic environments," she said.
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