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Getting past 2-D thinking is the key

There’s a major flaw in humans. With two eyes, and genetically always looking at flat planes of vision, we tend to think, “see,” in two dimensions. Because we live in a 3-D world, we piece together our world in 2-D planes of sight, vertical and horizontal, to effectively record the dimension, size, shape and color of objects that are 3-D. 

Even in movies, determined to understand alien language (complex circles in “Arrival” or Klingon in “Star Trek”), the writing is only depicted in 2-D.

Such 2-D thinking has given us the advent of the printers that lay, layer upon layer, material to “create” a 3-D item. GE is currently developing a 2-D metal printer, using additive printing called 3-D, that will be 100 times faster than current laser printers. The space station even has a so-called 3-D printer to make repair and replacement parts. But all of these are nothing like the advances coming your way shortly.

Twenty years ago, three scientists took a 6-foot diameter sphere made of clear glass and filled it with a clear solution, to which they added tiny flakes of aluminum in suspension. Then, computer controlled, they aimed three lasers on different axes into the chamber. 

Where the three beams met, a small piece of aluminum was melted into solidity. The lasers moved, millimeter by millimeter, building an object from the inside out. The 3-D complexity of the items they could manufacture was, is, astounding — so astounding that this invention is still controlled by DARPA. In essence, in this chamber they “grow” an object, from the inside to the outside.

Medicine has been working on replacement parts for some while. Moving on from the basic 2-D thinking of every microscope slide investigation, the 3-D world of human body parts has always proved a challenge. 

Want to replace skin? Start growing it in a dish in 2-D, put it on the patient and encourage the body to fill in, make 3-D the graft. 

Why can’t they take a piece of human skin say ½ inch thick and graft that on? Because there are microscopic 3-D tubes and nerve connections that need to hook up, or need to be individually grafted to corresponding tubes and nerves. 

That’s why an operation to re-attach someone’s hand after an accident takes many, many hours and often many operations. That 3-D work is painstaking and demanding.

Already, many research facilities are working on “building,” using 2-D printers, human organs that they hope will function. The interconnectivity of the tubes, pathways and nerve connections are proving far more complex than first thought. 

And into this arena now comes a startling 3-D thinking and process which should, all things being equal, be revolutionary. Not just revolutionary for medicine, but for thinking, thinking 3-D, thinking of the whole, not the slice-by-slice approach to current manufacture.

Bile ducts are, in effect, the waste disposal system for your body. Most bile ducts are so small, so fragile that the complex network of the ones in your gall bladder and liver cannot be physically replaced. If they become blocked, you get disease and illness, sometimes fatal illness. Want to cure liver disease or avoid the need for many liver transplants? You have to be able to replace or repair bile ducts. Now a group in the UK at Cambridge, have made a breakthrough. A 3-D breakthrough.

First they isolate cells — say from the liver — that they want to propagate. Putting them in a dish in a 3-D culture solution, they encourage growth for a few weeks to the point where they have a large number of growing cells. 

They placed what are called “scaffolds” into the cell mixture. The cells then attach themselves to the scaffolding, using the scaffold as the strength they need to grow onto 3-D tissue and, yes, tubes. 

What was more startling was that early trials looked like they could, one day, begin to grow a liver — from the inside out. 

Currently, using bile duct material which has to grow into flawless tubes to resist the highly toxic environment of waste disposal, they have made and successfully tested (and MRI examined all is working fine) these tubes in mice —tubes only 1 mm in diameter. The human ones of 1 cm in diameter are in process and looking positive.

The other urgent applications are, for any medical people reading this, obvious. Within a few weeks, to be able to grow arteries, bronchial tubes, intestine tubes from the patient’s own cells, eliminating the chance of rejection, are enormous.

Thinking of the whole, thinking in 3-D not 2-D, has benefits in all fields of science. The challenge is our inherent 2-D thought weakness and transcending that. Great breakthroughs await.

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, lives in New Mexico.