Medical Devices and Healthcare IT

Hearts and Brains are Being 3D-Printed Out of Biological Materials

28 October 2015

As of this month, over 4,000 Americans are on the waiting list to receive a heart transplant. With failing hearts, these patients have no other options; heart tissue, unlike other parts of the body, is unable to heal itself once it is damaged.

Strides are being made in the 3D-printing industry. What this means is a future where patients may not need to wait for organ transplants to fix their damaged organs.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have used MRI images of coronary arteries, along with 3-D images of embryonic hearts and printed them out of soft materials like collagens, alginates and fibrins.

A coronary artery structure being 3-D bioprinted. Image Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of EngineeringA coronary artery structure being 3-D bioprinted. Image Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering"As excellently demonstrated by Professor Feinberg's work in bioprinting, our CMU researchers continue to develop novel solutions like this for problems that can have a transformational effect on society," says Jim Garrett, dean of Carnegie Mellon's College of Engineering. "We should expect to see 3-D bioprinting continue to grow as an important tool for a large number of medical applications."

3-D printing organs has been challenging because traditional 3-D printers create hard objects out of plastic or metal and the materials are printed layer-by-layer to create it. Printing with softer materials is dangerous because they collapse under their own weight when 3-D printed in air. To overcome this challenge, the team printed these soft materials inside a support bath material.

“Essentially, we print one gel inside of another gel, which allows us to accurately position the soft material as it's being printed, layer-by-layer,” says Adam Feinberg, an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at CMU.

One of the major advances of this technique, termed FRESH, or "Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels," is that the support gel can be easily melted away and removed by heating to body temperature, which does not damage the delicate biological molecules or living cells that were bioprinted. As a next step, the group is working toward incorporating real heart cells into these 3-D printed tissue structures, providing a scaffold to help form contractile muscle.

While bioprinting is a growing field, most 3-D bioprinters cost over $100,000 and/or require specialized expertise to operate, limiting wider-spread adoption. However, Feinberg's group has been able to implement their technique on a range of consumer-level 3-D printers, which cost less than $1,000 by utilizing open-source hardware and software.

"Not only is the cost low, but by using open-source software, we have access to fine-tune the print parameters, optimize what we're doing and maximize the quality of what we're printing," says Feinberg. "It has really enabled us to accelerate development of new materials and innovate in this space. And we are also contributing back by releasing our 3-D printer designs under an open-source license."

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