Research Heralds 3D-Printed Organs and even Hearts

By Catherine
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3D printing human organs

Written by Catherine Bolgar

Few would have guessed the trajectory from 1970s inkjet printers to 3D printed organs consisting of human cells, yet, that’s where we’re headed.

3D printers apply layers of melted plastic to create complex objects, from the silly to the serious, including personalized prostheses such as eyes, ears or knees. A patient at the University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands, recently was the first to receive a custom 3D printed plastic skull.

A step beyond plastic parts is a biological-synthetic combination. A personalized 3D printed scaffolding is made of synthetic material, on which living cells are placed that will grow around the structure. This technique, which prints the structure but not the cells, is being examined for bone and for skin.

Cells we isolate from fat will stimulate bone formation and blood vessel formation in these structures,” says Stuart K. Williams, director of the bioficial organs program at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. “That is on the cusp of becoming utilized in a more widespread manner.”

The next goal: to use 3D printing techniques with live cells. Tissue made artificially with real human cells is called “bioficial.”

A patch of bone tissue may one day help patients whose vertebrae are damaged by an injury or cancer. Cartilage, which doesn’t regenerate on its own, could be repaired with bioficial tissue created from patients’ own cells. And perhaps, someday, entire organs could be replaced.

3d printed head

Cells are trickier to work with than plastic. The printer itself has to be adjusted—rather than melting at high temperatures, it has to use low temperatures that won’t kill the cells. It has to be sterile. A robot-controlled syringe squeezes out the cells, which are suspended in a gel that can solidify and maintain the desired shape, similar to gelatin desserts. But those desserts melt when they get warm; for the 3D printed tissue not to melt in the heat of the body requires other chemical processes to ensure they retain the desired shape, says Jos Malda, deputy head of orthopedic research at University Medical Center Utrecht.

Not just that, but each cell needs nutrition. When a body part or organ loses its blood supply, it dies. “If you create a larger construct in the lab, keeping that piece alive is a big challenge,” Dr. Malda says.

Finally, “having cells in the right place doesn’t mean an organ will function,” Dr. Malda says. “But never say never.”

These challenges are why Dr. Williams decided to focus on a bioficial heart. “It doesn’t have complex metabolic activities like the liver or kidneys do. A heart is simply a pump. It pushes blood out and allows blood to come back in,” Dr. Williams says.

The artificial heart was one of the first implanted devices made of synthetic materials. Dr. Williams’s team is working to make a bioficial heart, starting by printing individual parts: the valves, the cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells), the electrical conduction system, the large blood vessels and the small blood vessels.

We have made dramatic steps forward printing the individual parts of the heart,” he says. “We haven’t assembled it yet, but it’s likely to happen in the not too distant future. It won’t be ready for implantation, but we will be able to understand how the heart works in assembled form.”

The first step is to assemble blood vessels to ensure the blood supply. That would allow for building tissue two to four centimeters thick that has its own blood supply.

Back in 1988, Dr. Williams used fat-derived cells to build a blood vessel and put it into the body of a patient. “Fat has the capability of forming all the different cells found in the heart,” he says.

Some day, doctors might be able to take a patient’s own cells to build a replacement organ, thereby getting around the problems of rejection of a donor organ.

Perhaps we’ll find out it isn’t necessary for a bioficial heart to look exactly like a real heart, or a bioficial kidney to look exactly like a real kidney for them to work well. “Maybe we can make it more simplistic, using a slightly different blueprint,” Dr. Williams says.

Will the first use in a patient be the complete heart or parts of a heart?” he asks. “I think it will be parts: a patch of large and small blood vessels.”

Such a patch, which researchers are trying to make in the lab, could be used in a patient whose blood isn’t reaching part of the heart. Another possibility is pediatric applications, for children whose hearts haven’t formed properly because of a genetic defect.

We’re hoping that one day we’ll be able to treat the patient by repairing parts long before they are in such a condition that we have to replace the entire organ,” Dr. Williams says.

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

The Ewey-Gooey Side of Human Simulation

By Tim
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Courtesy Argonne Labs

Courtesy Argonne Labs

Yep, it had to come to this. If you’re a bit squeamish, you may want to stop reading now. But if you want to know what it takes to accurately simulate the human body and develop innovative medical treatments, then read on… at your own risk.

As I mentioned in my previous posts, bioengineers must accurately model human body tissue in order to perform realistic simulation of medical devices and treatments. So, what is human body tissue? Here’s a simple definition of biological tissue from “An aggregate of similar cells and cell products forming a definite kind of structural material with a specific function, in a multicellular organism”.

Still with me? This blog is going to get gooey really fast.

Check out how engineers at Argonne Labs along with researchers as the University of Chicago Medical School are using Abaqus FEA to simulate the effect of cooling kidneys with ice slurry to prolong surgery procedures. Their innovative coolant enables surgeons to nearly triple the time allotted for laparoscopic procedures. Take a peak at their animation of the kidney cooling analysis here.

Courtesy University of Frankfurt

Courtesy University of Frankfurt

Who wants bedsores? Not me, nor the patients who experience prolonged periods of bed rest. Unfortunately, this painful and health-threatening problem strikes thousands of patients every year. Researchers at the University of Frankfurt are working to solve this problem by using Abaqus to analyze how patient contact with hospital beds cause internal stress and strain on human tissue. Check out their case study at Product Design and Development’s website.

Prefer some more cerebral images? Check out the analysis and visualization being peformed by bioengineers at Boston University.

Courtesy Boston University
Courtesy Boston University

They are using Abaqus to study how electrodes perform when implanted into a patient’s brain to monitor epileptic activity for surgical pre-evaluation. You can read details of their brain EEG study in this related Abaqus Tech Brief.

So, if you’re not completely grossed out by all the human tissue flying around, then do a Google search using the key words human tissue simulation with Abaqus.

Let me know if you find some good, ‘ewey-gooey’ realistic simuation examples.


ps – In future posts I will continue our medical journey, but for now I need some fresh air.