In the last decade, stem cell research has grown exponentially. From regrowing heart tissue to improving people’s vision, stem cell research has changed how we practice medicine. Within the last five years, researchers have found yet another approach to using stem cells. This new approach involves stem cells and 3D printing, and it’s likely occurring at a clinic near you.
What is 3D Printing?
Most people aren’t familiar with 3D printing, but it’s becoming more and more common. 3D printers are considered medical devices and they’re regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These advanced printers have the ability to manufacture various types of medical devices, including those with complex geometry and features that match a patient’s unique anatomy. Common 3D printed medical devices include:
- External prostheses – (e.g. artificial limbs like a hand)
- Implants – (e.g. hip joints)
- Instrumentation – (guides that help with proper surgical placement of a device)
You’re probably thinking that all of this sounds pretty futuristic, but it’s happening in the here and now.
The History of 3D Printing
Although 3D printing sounds like a brand new concept, it’s not. 3D printers have been around since the early 1980s, but they’re just recently starting to gain popularity. When they were first created, 3D printers were expensive to purchase, but now the price has gone down. In addition, the technology today is a lot more robust than it was in the 1980s, so they’re easier to use and more readily available.
The Advent of Stem Cells and 3D Printing
Researchers thought it would be another 50 years before we’d have the ability to do many of the things that we’re able to do today. One of those things involves stem cells and 3D printing. Today, researchers are performing 3D scanning of everything from jawbones to the human ear. We’re even able to print out tissues that can be used to accommodate blood vessels.
The best way to gain an understanding of the concept is by becoming familiar with how it’s been used so far. We’ll share how stem cells and 3D printers have worked together to date.
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The Creation of Body Parts
We weren’t bluffing when we mentioned that 3D printers print out tissue, but they definitely do more than just that. Scientists from organizations like Wake Forest University have created custom-made living body parts by 3D printing stem cells into biodegradable scaffolds. Using a 3D printer called ITOP (Integrated Tissue-Organ Printer), stem cells can be printed using a hydrogel solution. The printed stem cells are then developed into life-sized organs and tissues that have microchannels that permit blood, oxygen, and nutrients to flow through.
Ethical and Cost-effective Pharmaceutical Testing
One of the best ways for researchers to test new drugs and other medical advancements is by using 3D printed tissue. It’s a much more ethical option than testing it on living human beings and mice. Plus, it’s accurate. The 3D printer can create tissue samples made from human cells, so the results should be right on the money. Lastly, it’s a cost effective approach which allows for research dollars to be used more efficiently.
Resolving Chemical Imbalances in the Brain
Conditions like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and more affect millions of people all around the world. Researchers have been looking into stem cell research as one way to prevent and treat these devastating diseases. Scientists in Australia have been looking into ways that stem cells and 3D printing could help, and they’ve actually gotten some leverage.
Bio-ink, which is created out of human induced pluripotent stem cells, have been printed into a 3D scaffold and used to turn stem cells into nerve cells found in the brain. 3D printers could produce serotonin and GABA-producing nerve cells, which would assist in regulating chemical imbalances. Most neurological conditions are thought to be caused by defective neurotransmitters, so the potential is huge. Using 3D printers to customize brain tissue from a person’s own body tissue would allow for much more successful transplantations.
There are Different Types of 3D Printers
Just as there are different types of stem cell transplants, there are also different types of 3D printers; each of them serve a unique purpose. For instance, there is the bioprinter, which has two robotic print heads. One printhead places the human cells and the other one provides a form of support. The ITOP printer that we previously mentioned is a bioprinter.
Inkjet inspired printers are probably exactly what you think they are, except with cells. When this printer was first created, cells were put directly into the ink cartridges and the printers were set-up to place the cells in a specific way. Now, skin cells can be placed inside of an ink cartridge and printed directly onto a wound.
The third type of 3D printer is the six-axis printer. It’s advanced capabilities allows it to build multiple types of tissue at the same time and move them around as needed. For instance, one company created a six-axis printer specifically for the heart. The heart valves could start off in one spot and then the robot, which is a component of the printer, could move it into another section of the heart later.
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There are Limitations to 3D Printing
There is hope that stem cells and 3D printing will be able to provide a medical breakthrough, but there is still a ways to go. One limitation is that the body can reject 3D printed cells, which already happens with some allogeneic stem cell transplants.
The other limitation is building large‐scale vascularized constructs which include a system of veins, arteries, and capillaries. While blood vessels have been created out of 3D printed tissue, it is still far from perfect. If we’re going to have 3D printed organs, then we’ll also require a system to effectively remove waste and deliver nutrients to it as well.
Stem Cells and 3D Printing are the Future
There is no doubt in our minds that stem cells and 3D printing will become one of modern medicines greatest breakthroughs. Research is being done right now to see how together, stem cells and 3D printers can change peoples lives. Could medicine of the future really be as simple as, “hey, I need a lung”, and it’s created right there in front of our eyes? It’s certainly possible.