The word "printer" evokes images of office supplies, paper jams and reams of paper. But add "3D" and the image changes: a device that’s inspired everything from tools for use in space to bacteria-fighting replacement teeth. But what if 3D-printed devices could come to actual life? That’s no longer just speculation with reports that an attempt to 3D print human tissue into lifelike body parts has succeeded.
Last year, Smithsonian.com reported on the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s ambitious bid to 3D print everything from skin to organs. At the time, the team’s attempt to print lifelike body parts was still in its early stages. Though their dreams of printing things like kidneys have yet to be realized, the team has taken an impressive first step, creating a unique printer that can fabricate human tissue and mold it into any shape.
A new paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology describes the printer, which the team calls an integrated tissue-organ printer, or ITOP for short. The printer solves two big problems for scientists who have been frustrated by past attempts to print with living tissue. Not only does it print structures that are strong and large enough to be implanted, but it also helps cells live long enough to be integrated into a body.
The secret of the printer’s success is hydrogel, which is made of water, gelatin and other substances that support cell growth. The printer lays down that substance along with biodegradable structural materials that eventually dissolve once the tissue is strong enough to support itself. When fully printed tissues were implanted into animals, they matured and even developed their own blood vessels.
In a release, researchers note that once they figured out how to make sure cells live while they’re being printed, they ensured the cells’ viability by building “a lattice of micro-channels” in the structures. These tiny chambers enable the printed cells to get essential nutrients and oxygen and stay alive long enough for blood vessels to develop.
The 3D-printed tissue does have a rather creepy look—especially when it’s in a Petri dish filled with a pink substance. However, the advance could one day allow patients with diseases or missing body parts to become whole again with tissue generated from their own bodies. Perhaps one day, tissue-printing 3D devices will be a common sight in hospitals and doctors’ offices. For now, though, the Wake Forest prototype signals a medical miracle in the making.