One step closer to 3D-printed organs

Researchers have developed a new method to 3D-print biological models of hearts, arteries, bones and even brains. The study is a promising step towards solving, hopefully in a not-too-far future, the problem of limited availability of organs for life-saving transplants.

3D printed organs might soon become reality (credit: WFRIM)

3D printed organs might soon become reality (credit: WFRIM)

Traditional 3D printers work by building objects layer by layer. They deposit raw materials such as metal or plastic one layer at a time, with each ‘slice’ being deposited over the previous one to form the final three-dimensional design. This means that for each layer to set properly the layer below needs to be sturdy enough to provide support. This is clearly a problem in 3D-printing of biological material. “3-D printing of various materials has been a common trend in tissue engineering in the last decade, but until now, no one had developed a method for assembling common tissue engineering gels like collagen or fibrin,” said TJ Hinton lead author of the study.

In the study, conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers developed a new technique to tackle the limit of printing with soft biological materials. The novel technique is called ‘Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels’ or ‘FRESH’ and is based on printing the layers of soft materials inside a supporting gel-like structure.  “We developed a method of printing these soft materials inside a support bath material. Essentially, we print one gel inside of another gel, which allows us to accurately position the soft material as it’s being printed, layer-by-layer,” explained Professor Adam Feinberg senior author of the study.

After printing, the supporting gel-like material can be easily melted away and removed by heating to body temperature, hence without damaging the integrity of the printed biological tissues and cells. As well as for its effectiveness, the technique is also attractive for its convenience. It can cost, indicatively, as little as US$1,000 and work on consumer-level 3D-printers, versus competitor 3D-bioprinters that can cost up to US$100,000 and require specialized expertise to be operated. “Not only is the cost low, but by using open-source software, we have access to fine-tune the print parameters, optimize what we’re doing and maximize the quality of what we’re printing,” Feinberg said. “It has really enabled us to accelerate development of new materials and innovate in this space. And we are also contributing back by releasing our 3-D printer designs under an open-source license.”

The next development for the team of researchers is to include real heart cells in the 3D-printed tissues as a scaffold for contractile muscle. A video explaining the basic concept behind the ‘FRESH’ technique can be found here.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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