Ears, muscles and jawbones, among other living body parts, have been printed using living cells and a gel by a team at Wake Forest University.
Scientists say that the development of printing out body parts is a significant leap in regenerative medicine. When certain parts of the bone, muscle and cartilage were implanted in animals, they functioned perfectly. The breakthrough holds significant promise for patients who suffer from, for example, a damaged jaw or a missing ear.
The approach, published in Nature Biotechnology, utilizes the technique of combining living cells with a special gel which, initially liquid, solidifies into the consistency of the living tissue.
The study team was led by Dr. Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest University Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Speaking with NBC News, he said, “We are actually printing the scaffolds and the cells together. We show that we can grow muscle. We make ears the size of baby ears. We make jawbones the size of human jawbones. We are printing all kinds of things.”
While the advancement holds much promise, an unfortunate setback that was encountered surrounds keeping the cells alive. If the tissues are thicker than 0.2 millimeters, the cells become deficient in oxygen and nutrients.
Dr. Atala has worked on growing organ transplants for more than a decade. In 2006, his team grew the first grown organ – bladder that was implanted into a human. His team also grew rabbit penises. The 3D printing of body parts is a definite breakthrough in the field of medicine.
“Let’s say a patient presented with an injury to their jaw bone and there’s a segment missing,” Dr. Antala said, “we’d bring the patient in, do the imaging and then we would take the imaging data and transfer it through our software to drive the printer to create a piece of jawbone that would fit precisely in the patient.” Speaking about the study, he said, “We printed a wide range of tissue strengths – from muscles as a soft tissue to cartilage and bone as a hard tissue showing a whole range of tissue strengths is possible.”
The team is also endeavoring to print out body parts like livers, lung tissue and kidney tissue. Although there is a long way, and several years, to go before they can successfully be implanted in humans, Dr. Antala says he hopes to be able to give people custom made transplants created from their own cells. “The hope is to continue work on these technologies to target other humans tissues as well.”
Two years ago, BBC reports, women received vaginas grown in laboratories at the Wake Forest. However, the setback of trying to keep them alive remained.