We’ve moved one step closer to a future where doctors can simply whip up replacement organs made from your own cells, with Israeli researchers announcing they have just 3D-printed an entire heart using biological materials.
Today, if you need a heart transplant, you have to wait for an available and suitable organ from someone else’s body, and the organs don’t always take.
This week, scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel announced they have made progress towards an alternative solution.
Using a bio-ink gel derived from fatty tissue “reprogrammed” as stem cells, they 3D-printed a tiny, thumb-size heart in three hours.
“This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart complete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” corresponding author Tal Dvir said in a statement from the university.
The heart, about the size of a rabbit’s, is too small for a human, and researchers are still figuring out how to coax it to beat and circulate blood.
But the process used to create it shows the potential for one day being able to 3D-print patches and maybe full transplants, Professor Dvir said.
He said it could mean patients will no longer have to wait for transplants or take medications to prevent their rejection.
“Instead, the needed organs will be printed, fully personalized for every patient.”
“Maybe, in ten years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely.”
Making the chemical heart, getting it started
According to the research paper published in the German journal Wiley-VCH, researchers used fatty tissue taken from both humans and pigs.
The cellular materials of the issue were then separated and the cells were genetically “reprogrammed” to become pluripotent stem cells – these are cells that can give rise to all of the cell types that make up the body.
The remaining cells were processed into a “thermoresponsive hydrogel” that becomes stronger upon heating to the temperature of the human body (37C).
The mix of hydrogel and stem cells was fed into a 3D printer that printed cardiac tissue based on anatomical data from CAT scans.
Organs made from a patient’s own body tissue are unlikely to be rejected: “The biocompatibility of engineered materials is crucial to eliminating the risk of implant rejection, which jeopardizes the success of such treatments,” Professor Dvir said.
“Ideally, the biomaterial should possess the same biochemical, mechanical and topographical properties of the patient’s own tissues.
The technology can also be used to engineer “vascularised patches” to replace parts of organs – the same way you’d replace parts of a car engine.
To demonstrate how the personalised hydrogel can be shaped into accurate, high resolution thick structures, researchers 3D-printed a human hand (this did not include the internal parts such as bone and blood vessels).
The design for the hand was downloaded from the website Thingiverse – a creative commons database of designs for 3D-printed objects.
Printing a human heart will be far more complex than the thumb-size one, but Professor Dvir said that in many cases it will not be necessary to replace the whole heart – instead, we can simply take out and patch diseased areas.