3D "bioprinting" takes a three-dimensional, biological structure and essentially clones it using a printer.
Louisville researcher Stuart Williams is not talking about a far-off, science-fiction effort when he describes how local scientists will create new, functioning human hearts — using cells and a 3-D printer.
“We think we can do it in 10 years — that we can build, from a patient’s own cells, a total ‘bioficial’ heart,” said Williams, executive and scientific director of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, a collaboration between the University of Louisville and the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.
The project is among the most ambitious in the ever-growing field of three-dimensional printing that some experts say could revolutionize medicine.
Known for creating products as diverse as car parts and action figures, 3-D printing is also being used to create models of human bones and organs, medical devices, personalized prosthetics and now, human tissues. Williams describes the process as taking a three-dimensional structure “and essentially cloning it, using a printer.”
“Bioprinting is pretty much done everywhere,” said Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, where scientists recently won an award for innovations in bioprinting. “Our ultimate goal is increasing the number of patients who get organs.”
In February 2013, doctors at Weill Cornell Medical College and biomedical engineers at Cornell University in New York announced they had used 3-D printing and injectable gels made of cells to build a facsimile of a human ear that looks and acts like a real one.
And in the case of the baby in Michigan, university officials said the splint was created from a CT scan of the patient’s trachea and bronchus, integrating a computer model with 3-D printing. The baby, who used to stop breathing every day when his collapsed bronchus blocked the flow of air, was off a ventilator three weeks after the surgery, and officials say he hasn’t had breathing trouble since.
Wake Forest scientists, like their peers in Louisville, are working on organs. Officials at Wake Forest say their scientists were the first in the world to engineer a lab-grown organ, and they hope to scale up the process by printing organs with a custom printer. Institute scientists there have also designed a bioprinter to print skin cells onto burn wounds.
So far, Williams said, he knows of no instance where a tissue or organ created through 3-D printing has been implanted in a human. But he said the race is on.
“I think this will have an incredible effect on trauma patients … on the armed forces. You can imagine printing a jaw, printing muscle cells, printing the skin,” he said. “Ultimately I see it being used to print replacement kidneys, to print livers, and to print hearts — and all from your own cells.”