There are few technologies expected to change the landscape of numerous manufacturing industries over the coming decade more than 3D printing.

This technology, which has been around for decades but has only recently come to the forefront on a mass scale because of significantly lower costs, has the potential to greatly improve the speed at which businesses innovate. Prior to 3D printers, a business may have had to order dozens or hundreds of prototypes of new parts or equipment to see what would work. Now, with the assistance of 3D printers, businesses can design their own innovations, one at a time, and completely eliminate the need for the middleman. Not surprisingly, Markets & Markets estimates that the global 3D printing market will be worth $8.43 billion by 2020 -- an annual growth rate of 14%. 

There are some obvious beneficiaries to the 3D printing process. The automotive industry, aerospace and defense, and a plethora of consumer goods companies are already using, or could soon be using, 3D printers to test new parts or containers, for example.

But, another industry that that could see an incredible number of breakthroughs due to 3D printing research is the healthcare industry.

One of the biggest obstacles for drug developers is the time it takes to determine whether or not a drug is safe. Understandably, this isn't a step that can be skipped, nor will the Food and Drug Administration allow any drug to be approved that hasn't submitted substantial data on its safety.

But what if there were a way to determine the safety of drug-to-drug interactions and other metabolic interactions in the lab in just a fraction of the time? That's where 3D printing could come into play, and it's also where our latest breakthrough in the medical field comes from.

3D printing leads to a major medical breakthrough
According to researchers at Tufts University School of Engineering and the University of Pavia, whose work was pre-published in the journal Blood, they've developed the first three-dimensional tissue system capable of producing human bone marrow that successfully generates platelets. Platelets are critical for clotting so we don't bleed to death, but they also play a role in heart attacks, strokes, and in limiting inflammation and cancer.

Red blood cell, platelet, and white blood cell. Source: National Cancer Institute, Wikimedia Commons.

In their study, researchers used microtubes of spun of silk (the biomaterial component that is a nonactivating agent for platelets), collagen, and fibronectin, which were surrounded by a porous silk sponge. Megakaryocytes, the bone marrow cells ultimately responsible for making platelets, were then fed into the microtubes. After embedding the silk with active endothelial cells and endothelial-related proteins, researchers were able to boost platelet production. Researchers were also able to confirm that these platelets functioned normally and led to clotting.

Why's this important? First off, it's a scalable model that could yield more platelets on an as-needed basis. More importantly, it provides a means for studying the process of platelet production and diseases that arise from a lack of platelet production. Specifically, researchers hope the additional platelets produced by their model could one day be used to help support bone tissue regeneration or help heal ulcers or burns.

It is worth noting that the megakaryocytes produced fewer platelets in the model than would have normally been produced within the body, but that the production was nonetheless a major advancement over previous platelet-generating models. 

Science becomes reality
While the finer points of platelet production utilizing 3D printed silk protein are still likely to be fine-tuned, drug developers already have a real taste of what 3D printing can do for them with the approval of Organovo Holdings' (NASDAQ:ONVO) exVive3D Human Liver Tissue System.

Source: Organovo Holdings.

Engineering human tissue has always been a dream of drug developers, as it could mean the rapid study of clinical pharmacokinetics. The idea behind having the ability to test on human tissues is that it could save millions upon millions of dollars in testing costs, but it could also greatly reduce the amount of guessing spent on whether or not a drug would be toxic to a patient. Organovo's 3D liver assay allows researchers to work with bioengineered human liver samples and do just this.

In its first quarter on the market exVive3D brought in nearly $140,000 when you include product and service revenue. Previously, Organovo's revenue had been entirely tied to collaborative research. Although this sales figure might be a bit low for most investors' expectations, it's possible that drug developers and researchers are simply waiting for more feedback from their peers before taking the dive themselves.

Source: Flickr user Umberto Salvagnin.

Bioengineered human liver tissue is just the beginning. Recently, Organovo and the Yale School of Medicine announced a collaboration, which is being funded by the Methuselah Foundation, to combine Organovo's bioprinting technology with Yale's top researchers to create transplantable organs. While taking this from concept to reality is a slow process, if organs could be bioengineered on a mass scale at some point in the future, we could eliminate organ donor waiting lists!

This will take time
I really enjoy scientific breakthroughs, and the news this week out of Tufts University and the University of Pavia is encouraging. It certainly validates that what Organovo is doing on a larger scale could very well succeed. However, from the viewpoint of an investor, it could be many years before Organovo can turn that success into consistent profits.

Probably the biggest factor working in Organovo's favor is its unique technology. That alone could lead to a number of upfront cash payments as drug developers look to partner with Organovo to develop new therapies (or in the case of Yale, transplantable organs).

But for the time being I'd suggest that playing it cautious is probably the smartest thing investors can do. It's worth closely monitoring Organovo and other 3D advances in the healthcare arena, but it's just too early for this area to be a viable investment opportunity.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.