Researchers say that 3D printers could potentially be used to create various organs in the future.
A number of models of anatomical structures such as brains, hearts, bones, and arteries can be printed in a 3D format. Scientists hope that in the future the 3D printers may also be used to print soft implants, which will contain living tissue.
Currently 3D printers are more efficient when creating items using hard, rigid materials such as ceramic, metal, plastic, and glass. It is more difficult to print soft material, scientists say. It would be like building something out of Jell-O.
The 3D printer works much like an ordinary printer – which lays down ink – except the 3D printer lays down flat layers of material (instead of ink) on top of each other, creating a three-dimensional object.
“Soft materials, those that can deform under their own weight, have been more challenging to support during the [3D] print process,” senior author of the study Adam Feinberg, who is a biomedical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said.
Rigid medical devices have been built using 3D printers. Individual patients had these devices custom-made. The devices included dental implants, hearing aids, and prosthetic hands.
Feinberg says that bioprinting – or the 3D printing of soft tissue – could revolutionise the medical field by providing an alternative to traditional organ transplants. The 3D printing of cells – used to reconstruct tissues and organs – could be applied in the field of tissue engineering, Feinberg added.
Soft materials may be printed inside a fluid that contains gelatine powder, the scientists found. By printing one gel inside of another gel, the accuracy with which the layers of soft material are printed on top of each other is better, Feinberg stated.
Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels (FRESH) is the name of the new technique that was used by scientists when printing simplified anatomical structures. They printed a human coronary artery, a femur, external folds of the brain, and hearts of embryonic chicks, using a variety of biological materials like collagen, alginate, and fibrin.
The 3D-printed anatomical structures will represent scaffolds in which researchers hope to incorporate real heart cells in the future. The cells would grow and eventually form heart muscle.
3D bioprinters are quite expensive nowadays – more than $100,000. Thankfully, the new method also works with 3D printers that are customer-level – meaning that they can be operated without requiring specialised expertise – and cost around $1,000.
Image Source: healthwareinternational