Game-Changing 3D BioPrinter Can Make Replacement Bones, Muscle, And Cartilage

A new life.

For years, scientists have dreamed of using 3D printing technology to make replacement organic tissues such as bone, cartilage, and even muscle. While there have been limited successes, it hasn't been achieved on a large enough scale to make it useful — until now. 

Researchers from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center specializing in regenerative medicine are now seeing the fruits of 10 years of labor with their integrated tissue–organ printer (ITOP). This machine has successfully made functional replacement tissues for animals, giving hope that full-sized custom tissues for humans will be available soon. The device was detailed in Nature Biotechnology

Funded by the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the goal of this technology is to help heal veterans harmed in combat. Though, like with many other technologies developed by the government, this could have widespread use in civilian life as well.

Eventually, this technology has the potential to change the lives of those affected by injury, cancer, organ failure and birth defects. 

"This novel tissue and organ printer is an important advance in our quest to make replacement tissue for patients," senior author Anthony Atala explained in a news release. "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."

ITOP printing jaw bone for implantation.
ITOP printing jaw bone for implantation. Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Historically, someone who needed critical tissues replaced had to rely on donors. Not only does the number of people in need of tissue donations far exceed the number of available tissues, but there are many obstacles to finding a good match that minimizes the odds of rejection. 

The ITOP creates a scaffold for the tissue out of bioplastics, making it the exact size and shape required. Next, a hydrogel of cells is put into place and cultured, allowing the cells to grow, divide, and mature until the tissue is ready for use.

The biggest problem with trying to make larger tissues has been that there aren't blood vessels. Not only does blood flow bring necessary oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the tissue, but it also flushes away waste products. Without this, healthy tissue simply cannot grow. 

The ITOP solves this by creating a series of microchannels within the scaffolding, which allows nutrients in the growth medium to flow through the tissue. What's more, once these tissues were implanted in an animal, blood vessels and nerves formed, which is crucial for muscle movement.

"Our results indicate that the bio-ink combination we used, combined with the micro-channels, provides the right environment to keep the cells alive and to support cell and tissue growth," Atala continued.

While their results so far indicate that the tissues are perfectly safe, the long-term effects in animals needs to be documented before they can be implanted into humans.

If and when this tool is scaled up for use in humans, the hydrogel could be infused with the patient's own stem cells, making personalized medicine more precise and effective than ever before.

Check out ITOP in action here:

(H/T: Popular Mechanics)

All images via: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine