How Do Bioprinters Work?
3D technology is not just something seen and used only in movie theaters and sci-fi anymore. Bioprinters could print 3-dimensional body parts and revolutionize the applications and effectiveness of medical care.
The first bioprinters were just desktop printers. Thomas Boland, in 2000, used his printer with collagen instead of ink. Later, his team worked with such materials as E. coli and then small animal cells. Other engineers worked to create things to aid humans, like ceramic bone grafts, polymer prosthetic limbs, acrylic hearing aids, and porcelain dental crowns with actual 3D printers. Other scientists, including Boland, were able to modify even regular printers for this type of use. They were able to disable the paper-feed part of the printer and add what could be described as an “elevator-like” platform. The platform could move up and down the z-axis to make printed sculptures, one layer at a time, such as a meniscus (C-shaped knee and joint cartilage).
Wake Forest researchers built their own custom, faster bioprinters that could print many different cell types, such as vascular, muscle, and stem cells. They could also make tissue and scaffolding, to create bones, noses, and ears. Because complex organs need complex framework, the idea is that the 3D printers can make cellular material that would be able to assemble itself, in a similar fashion to the process of embryonic development. Cells should not be placed in their final position—they should be allowed to naturally migrate into their proper places, as they do during gestation, according to Gabor Forgacs, co-founder of Organovo. The “challenge”, in making organs, is to also give them vascular support, down to the capillaries, so that they remain viable.1
Body Parts 3D Bioprinters Can Make
Manufacturing is being transformed by what 3D printers are capable of producing. Prosthetic devices can also be printed, for both people and animals. 3D biotechnology has made leaps from printing synthetic edible meat and leather to printing human liver tissue. Making a fully functioning liver organ is the next step. A human ear was created at Cornell University.2
A 3D printer was able to make a working human jaw for a woman. It was made to replace her original one, which she lost from osteomyelitis. This piece was accomplished through the use of a scaffold made of titanium, that was 3D printed and steeped in stem cells using the patient’s abdomen to grow tissue which would be individually compatible to this particular patient’s biochemistry. MRI scans were used during the jaw replacement surgery. The 3D printer shaped and fused particles of titanium layer by layer to carefully copy the shape of the jaw. A ceramic layer then covered the jaw. Dimples in the structure allowed muscle to attach, and openings in the jaw let nerves pass through. The doctors even left in intentional support structures for the potential of future dental implants.
3D bioprinters are also capable of using stem cells as a kind of “bio-ink” in various sizes and shapes.3 Robohand was created by a carpenter who unfortunately lost some fingers in an accident. Because he was unable to afford an expensive replacement prosthetic, Richard Van As built his own version of a replacement, with the help of designer Ivan Owen, which was made using a combination of cables, screws, 3D printing, and thermoplastic. The hand can actually grasp, and it only costs about $500 and a 3D printer to create. Robohand is an Open Source design, with the intent of helping as many people as possible throughout the world, and the plans to make it are available online for anyone to benefit from.4
The Future of Bioprinting
With bioprinting in development, future organ transplants may no longer run the risk of rejection, as the body is more likely to accept something which was formed from familiar materials. Body part replacements may become more widely available for those who need them. The method of testing medical treatment on animals can be reduced. Overall, more patients may be helped in the coming years as technology continues to develop and become more efficient. As this type of biotechnology becomes more available and easier to produce, it should become more accessible to the masses.
Organovo is a pioneering company that not only works with organ cells, but it can also print cardiac tissue, blood vessels, and it is doing continuing research on making functioning organs, such as the kidneys and liver. The print heads on their prototype printer had endothelial cells, cardiac cells, and collagen scaffolding, “bio-paper”. Now, once the basic design is put in place, “nature completes the job” by taking bioink spheroids (aggregates of cells) and fuses them together. In other words, “appropriate cell types…know what to do”. They just need to be produced and guided in the right direction. The body is already a naturally efficient producer of natural cells, it just needs a bit of outside help sometimes.5
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