Bioprinting technology allows researchers to produce tissues and organs by growing cell networks over carefully designed 'scaffolds'. Recently bioprinters have been used to produce thicker and healthier human tissue, and to print stem cell structures for use in new osteoarthritis treatments. Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia are right now working on using 3D-printed scaffolds and fat cells to regenerate breast tissue in women who have had mastectomies, and they say the technology will be in hospitals within five years.
Now an international team of scientists led by Luiz Bertassoni from the University of Sydney in Australia has figured out how to bioprint an artificial vascular network that mimics the body’s circulatory system. This a crucial part of growing large and complex tissues and organs.
"Cells die without an adequate blood supply because blood supplies oxygen that's necessary for cells to grow and perform a range of functions in the body," said Bertassoni in a press release. "To illustrate the scale and complexity of the bio-engineering challenge we face, consider that every cell in the body is just a hair's width from a supply of oxygenated blood. Replicating the complexity of these networks has been a stumbling block preventing tissue engineering from becoming a real world clinical application.”
"In order to solve this problem, the researchers created a framework of tiny interconnected fibers to serve as a mold, using a bioprinter. The structure was then covered with a 'cell-rich protein-based material' and solidified using light. The fibres were removed to leave a 'network of tiny channels coated with human endothelial cells, which self-organised to form stable blood capillaries in less than a week’."
The team has reported that their bioprinted vascular networks achieved significantly better cell survival, differentiation and proliferation compared to cells that received no nutrient supply. They will now work on incorporating these networks into bioprinted organs, which could potentially be built with enough precision to match individual patients' needs.
"While recreating little parts of tissues in the lab is something that we have already been able to do, the possibility of printing three-dimensional tissues with functional blood capillaries in the blink of an eye is a game-changer,” said Bertassoni.
It’s hoped that this technology will allow for patients to walk into a hospital and have an entire organ custom-made for them, and printed with all the cells, proteins and blood vessels in the right places.
"We are still far away from that, but our research is addressing exactly that,” said Bertassoni. "Our finding is an important new step towards achieving these goals. At the moment, we are pretty much printing 'prototypes' that, as we improve, will eventually be used to change the way we treat patients worldwide."