Wouldn’t it be great if we could replace injured or diseased tissues in our bodies?
Sounds like science fiction, right? Wrong!
Regenerative medicine scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have created something called an integrated-tissue organ printer (ITOP). It’s a custom-designed 3-D printer that can produce organs, tissues, and bones that – theoretically – could be implanted into living human beings.
It’s a significant step up from previous attempts. Researchers have printed living cells before, but only tiny pieces of gelatinous material. Larger structures had either collapsed or died from oxygen starvation.
How It Works
So how exactly does this miracle machine from Wake Forest work? The details of the 10 years of work by Wake Forest researchers appeared in a paper published by the science journal Nature Biotechnology.
It works much like other 3-D printers do, using a computer-controlled nozzle to extrude layers of material in an extremely precise pattern. But, obviously, it’s not using molten metal or plastic.
Instead, the ITOP lays down both hydrogels and some plastic-like, biodegradable materials. Hydrogels are water-based solutions that contain human cells, while the biodegradable materials provide structure and strength to the tissue. The design also leaves tiny channels for oxygen to enter so cells in the middle of the structure don’t suffocate.
After the biodegradable material and the outer structure dissolves, the tissue is – theoretically – ready to be implanted into a waiting patient.
Early Test Results Promising
Early experimentation using the ITOP are extremely promising. The Wake Forest researchers implanted ITOP-generated ear, bone, muscle, and cartilage into rats and mice.
The printer-generated tissue matured into functional tissue and developed a system of blood vessels.
Most importantly, these early tests show that the structures produced have the right size, strength, and function for future use in humans.
The senior author of the study and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Anthony Atala, M.D., said, “It [ITOP] 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.”
The other plus to the ITOP system is that it can incorporate data from CT and MRI scans to create “tailor-made” tissues for patients.
Research Will Continue
Further research will continue on the ITOP. The next step will be to use the ITOP to print organs.
Funding help is coming from the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a federally funded effort to apply regenerative medicine to battlefield injuries.
Wake Forest researchers have been in contact with the Food and Drug Administration about setting up human trials. Obviously, the goal will be to eventually create body parts for people who need them, like our wounded warriors.
Let’s hope progress in quick and that this miracle machine can change lives for the better.