Matt Peckham on the very near future of organ replacement technology:
Say you need a new trachea, a part of the body we’ve already managed to replicate using stem cells and successfully transplant to a human with late-stage tracheal cancer (I’m not making that up or exaggerating). With a 3D printer and a bunch of stem cell-saturated bio-ink, you might be able to just print that trachea on demand thanks to a new technique that lets you pass human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) through a printer nozzle without destroying them.
A team of researchers from Scotland announced Monday that they’d finally managed to get an inkjet-style printer to craft an organic 3D object. Not an actual organ (well, not yet), but these scientists claim they’ve been able to clear a crucial hurdle: getting hESCs, prized for their ability to become cells of any tissue type, to survive the printing process.
The solution involved rejiggering the way the inkjet-style 3D printer worked, specifically the printing valve, which had to be tweaked to ever-so-gently deposit blobs of hESCs in programmable patterns without compromising the viability and functionality of the cells themselves. The researchers figured out how to do this using two types of bio-inks as well as allow for independent control of the amount in each droplet (with considerable control granularity — down to less than five cells per droplet). The results of the experiment were just published in the bio-science print and online journal Biofabrication.