MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pioneered 3D printing from an early stage and now they have joined up with the University of Pennsylvania for the latest developments in using 3D printing: as many recent developments have been in healthcare and again this could save lives.
Artificial blood vessels are being made using 3D printing as an important part of the technique but the team aren’t using the latest multi million pound 3D printers or even mid-market 3D printers but an adapted RepRap printer, the parts for which cost only a few hundred dollars and which can be made, and adapted, by almost anyone with a few electronics skills.
The RepRap printer is being used due to the fact the team were able to adapt the versatile design so they could print using sugar to make soluble but highly detailed printouts.
Although 3D printing is being used the techniques used alongside are anything but modern as the sugar blood vessels are being used to have tissue built or grown around them: after this the soluble sugar can be washed away. This is a technique that has been used in manufacturing for centuries to create internal structures, in some areas 3D printing is replacing this technique but there are materials that 3D printers can’t print yet.
As yet 3D printers can’t print living tissue but living tissue can be grown, vascular cells can be made to grow and replicate but the vascular system itself couldn’t be made this way. Now though by printing a detailed vascular system with the RepRap printer in sugar a very detailed system of vessels can be made.
One day soon then it may be possible to make fully functioning organs in this way, a heart for example, which has an extremely detailed network of vessels- some microns thin, can be made with the detailed system of vessels in place. The sugar simply needs to be washed out after the cells have grown, shortly before the heart or other tissue is used in surgery: thereby leaving the vessels in place and ready to work.
At the moment it is only small sections of tissue that have been created and none have yet been used in surgery but testing has shown the potential with blood like nutrient liquid circulated through the tissue that allowed the cells to not only survive but thrive.
The next stage is to experiment with different networks of vessels, designed in CAD, to see which are most effective, after this the team will start shipping the templates they print to cell biologists elsewhere in the US and across the world where they will experiment with using them In the techniques they are developing.
With the cheapness of the technology used, and of the material used for printing, having these blood vessel printers located in labs around the world and in hospitals isn’t hard to imagine. The future may see the method used to make tissue to order, perhaps eventually reducing or removing the need for donated organs such as lungs and hearts.