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Breakthrough in 3D printed body parts research

posted 28 February 2016 at 14:28:33

Since we last blogged about them in May last year, things have been moving on apace at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, USA. Now WFIRM has announced a significant advance for regenerative medicine: using a custom-designed 3D printer, scientists have successfully printed living tissue structures that have been implanted into animals. The structures – sections of bone, muscle and ear cartilage – all functioned and developed a system of blood vessels after being implanted.  

‘This is an important advance in the quest to make replacement tissue for patients’ said Dr Anthony Atala, director of WFIRM and lead researcher on the study. ‘It can fabricate stable, human-scale tissue of any shape. With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for surgical implantation.’  

The technique, called the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System – or ITOP – combines a biodegradeable plastic-like scaffolding to form the tissue ‘shape’ with a water-based gel containing the living cells. The main challenge for the team was that of keeping the cells alive once they had been implanted. The team addressed this by optimising the ‘ink’ that contains the cells as well as 3D printing a sponge-like tissue filled with micro-channels that allow nutrients to penetrate the tissue. The channels allowed the nutrients and oxygen from the body to diffuse into the structures and keep them live while they developed a blood vessel system.  

Previously, tissue structures had to be less than 200 microns thick for cells to survive, but in this study a baby-sized ear structure, measuring 38mm (1.5 inches), pictured, survived and had developed blood vessels one to two months after implantation.  

Although there's still a lot of research to be carried out before the printer can be used in patients, this breakthrough has brought forward the time when doctors will be trialling customised 3D printed organs and tissues. 

Image: © Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine