The prospect of 3D printed human organs just got a little bit closer.
A team led by the University of Twente in the Netherlands have developed an ultra-precise (and particularly cool-looking) technique to print a tissue containing human living cells. Their research was recently published in the journal Science Advances.
The new technique of “in-air microfluidics” involves firing two jets of fluid at each other in mid-air. One of the jets fires calcium chloride and the other fires alginate, the stuff that makes up the cell walls of brown algae. After the collision, they flow into a spinning substrate. Remarkably, this allows the cells to be captured within the printable material.
The end result is a multicellular 3D tissue made out of cell-laden tubes. In other words, it’s basically a structured sponge-like hydrogel tube filled with human living cells. The researchers also released a video of their new method of microfluidics in action. As you can see, it looks a lot like someone crafting some clay on a potter's wheel.
"These 3D modular biomaterials have an internal structure that is quite similar to that of natural tissue," the University explain in a statement. "Many 3D printing techniques are based on using heat or UV light: both would damage living cells. The new microfluidic approach is therefore a promising technique in tissue engineering, in which damaged tissue is repaired by using cultured cell material of the patient."
This technique allows scientists to finely control and manipulate tiny drops of fluid no larger than a micrometer (0.001 millimeters). Previous to this breakthrough, it would take up to 17 hours to fill a cubic centimeter using similar techniques. Using this new form of microfluidics, it could take just a few minutes.
It might sound pretty heavy on the science, but this technique could hold some revolutionary real-world solutions. In 2003, the first patent for 3D bioprinting technology was filed in the US, basically consisting of a modified inkjet printer that prints living cells. Over the following decade, this promising field has come on in leaps and bounds. A study from 2015 demonstrated that it is possible to create a model heart through 3D printing. In the future doctors could use techniques such as this to 3D print cells for repairing damaged tissue. One step further, it could potentially even print whole human organs, although we are a fair way off from that being a reality.