An ancient legend dating from the early days of Judaism tells of the golem, a human-like creature made of mud and brought to life through prayers and rituals. Science fiction has made ample use of the golem, replacing mud with artificially derived organic matter brought to life with various forms of cyberkinesis. A popular example is the Cylons from the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot: complex, programmable androids that are virtually indistinguishable from real humans.

Cylons and their ilk are still lightyears away, but researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York have created a 3D printing process that could eventually produce living organic tissue. If successful, 3D printed organs and body parts might eliminate the need for donor transfers, ultimately saving or transforming the lives of recipients. The researchers published their findings in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials.

Printing biological material isn’t a new idea. We covered this 3D-printed heart model built from organic bioinks and stem cells last year. But so far, bioprinting of organs or tissue that function identically to their natural counterparts has been limited by slow printing speeds. The earlier printed parts can begin to break down during slower printing, affecting the printed cells’ bioactivity.

The UB team’s new technology can print a replica of a human hand up to 50 times faster than standard 3D printing systems. Using a multilevel process called stereolithography, the new system rapidly fabricates complex tissue structures by printing centimeter-sized sections simultaneously. In addition to the hand, the researchers replicated a human liver that includes internal vascular networks.

So far, the researchers have only printed replicas of tissue using hydrogels: firm gel solutions used commercially in products such as contact lenses and diapers. Having optimized the rapid printing technique, the team hope to print live organic cells that have functioning blood vessels with their system. It appears that science, rather than fiction, may soon transform legend into a life-saving reality.