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Biomedicine: How to “Print” a Heart on a Chip

“Additive manufacturing” is a fancy phrase for “3-D printing.” You’ve probably seen a lot of pretty cool things made that way. Researchers are now working on replacement parts… for your body.


“Biomedical research has relied on animal studies and conventional cell cultures for decades.”

That’s the first line of the abstract from a paper published October 24, 2016, in the journal Nature Materials.

And it’s the setup for an incredible punchline: a heart fabricated on a chip.

In technical terms, what the team of Harvard University researchers describes is “a facile route for fabricating a new class of instrumented cardiac micro-physiological devices via multi-material three-dimensional (3-D) printing.”

We’re not talking about a device that can be implanted to function in a human body.

But what the team from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has combined to do represents a significant advance for “additive manufacturing.”

What it can do is “mimic the structure and function of native tissue” and establish a new way to study human health and disease in the laboratory.

Up until now, 3-D tissue fabrication and data collection had been considered prohibitively expensive.

But this heart on a chip is created in a single, multi-material, automated process. Sensors are built in to track the “beating” heart. Heart muscle cells — cardiomyocytes — are added after the fabrication process and grow in the chip’s eight chambers.

What it can do is “mimic the structure and function of native tissue” and establish a new way to study human health and disease in the laboratory.

Researchers can then introduce drugs or create environmental situations that stress the tissue. Because sensors are built in during the initial fabrication process, it allows for near-instant transmission of data to measure how tissue responds to external stimuli.

And Kit Parker, a bioengineer at the Wyss Institute and a co-author of the paper, told IEEE Spectrum that this design process is not limited to the heart: “The gut, airways, vascular system, tongue, and skeletal muscle are all candidates for this type of mass-manufactured organ-chip.”

Implanting living, functioning 3-D-printed human tissue into actual humans is a little further down the road.

And it’s likely that the first implantable “tissue” made via the 3-D printing process will be much more rudimentary — a fabricated liver, for example.

One of the critical hurdles is creating tissue that can support vascular and neural generation so that implanted tissue can survive and thrive for the long term.

But researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) have described a viable “3-D bioprinting system to produce human-scale tissue constructs with structural integrity,” an “integrated tissue-organ printer (ITOP) that can fabricate stable… constructs of any shape.”

WFIRM has so far focused on jaw and skull bone and muscle tissue. But “future development of the ITOP is being directed to the production of tissues for human applications and to the building of more complex tissues and solid organs.”

That WFIRM’s process integrates bone, muscle, and cartilage and can feasibly introduce organ fabrication is a major leap for 3-D printing of human parts.

WFIRM’s efforts aren’t limited to growing tissue and organs. Scientists there have also developed a “‘metastasis-on-a-chip’ system believed to be one of the first laboratory models of cancer spreading from one 3-D tissue to another.”

Dr. Anthony Atala, the director of WFIRM, has also described a “‘body on a chip’ that allows the testing of effectiveness of potential treatments on the body as a system” in an August 2016 interview with the journal Transplantation.

That WFIRM’s process integrates bone, muscle, and cartilage and can feasibly introduce organ fabrication is a major leap for 3-D printing of human parts.

Atala also explains the intersection of organ transplantation with critical aspects of regenerative medicine.

This work will help us understand how tumors expand and extend into other parts of a person’s body — and personalize cancer treatment.

Stem cell technology is a critical aspect of organ regeneration and organ building science.

Engineering new, solid organs such as the heart, kidney, liver, lungs, and pancreas requires “millions of cells” to “ensure oxygen supply” until they integrate with the host body.

Stem cells can be used to regenerate and restore function so entirely new that tissue isn’t even necessary. And Dr. Atala and his team are exploring “the bioprinting of organs and organ ‘wafers’ that could help boost function” short of total replacement.

WFIRM is also engaged in CRISPR study, focused on how gene editing can be applied to organ restoration.

Futurists, like Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation and co-founder and executive chairman of Singularity University, talk about the “unexpected consequences” of “technology convergence” — the kind of stuff that happens when a number of different “exponential technologies all explode onto the scene at once.”

This is what’s happening with “additive manufacturing” — the fancy phrase for “3-D printing” — organ transplantation and regenerative medicine.

As trying as these times may seem, they’re pretty interesting, too.


Old Things New

HBO seems to have (finally) done it again.

After several misses, the premium cable television network has a new “prestige drama” to carry on the tradition of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood and maintain its place in the firmament after Game of Thrones is settled in 2018.

It had to make an “old thing new” — Michael Crichton’s 1973 film — but HBO’s presentation of Jonathan Nolan’s and Lisa Joy’s conception of Westworld is startling for its cinematography, story-telling-within-an-enticingly-enigmatic story, and sophisticated performances.

Particularly compelling is the credit sequence, which integrates 3-D printing of human tissue as it may play out in the very near future.

And that’s just the precursor for a fascinating study of artificial intelligence, the development of consciousness, and the meaning of existence. The mystery ain’t bad, either.

That’s another pretty cool convergence.

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

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