Organ donation saves millions of people each year, but the fact is that there aren’t enough organs to go around. Now, scientists, engineers and students at the University of Virginia have begun using a machine that could someday make replacement parts for humans.
The bioprinter is a small, table-top robot with a couple of tubes that contain human cells. Guided by a computer that has analyzed images of a body part, the device lays down layer after layer of sticky material or gel and cells that are genetically programmed to work in certain ways.
Professor Shayn Peirce-Cottler watches as three of her students play with the $200,000 machine - creating a human tooth.
“What we’re actually going to be working on this summer is printing very small pieces of muscle that could be used in reconstructive surgeries for patients who have cleft palate or cleft lip and need reconstruction. We can use stem cells that reside in our fat - easy to harvest with routine liposuction. We also can get collagen out of cadaver skin and harvest those proteins and then feed them into the printer along with our stem cells and then print them into a tissue of any shape or size that we can create on the computer using very standard computer-aided design software. It can read images from MRI or CT or any patient-derived images and then print the geometries that are exactly the same shape as the image specified."
“Cells are very good at behaving the way they are supposed to when you give them an environment that they like, and so a lot of the research that we’ve been doing over the past ten years in this lab is trying to understand what is it about the cellular environment that makes cells about to do some of the things that we care about, like for example, forming a new blood vessel, because right now that’s a huge bottleneck. You have to be able to give the tissue you print a supply of Oxygen and nutrients, and that’s only going to happen by having blood vessels in the tissue.”
“I think in the near term we have very realistic goals. For example, skin has a very simple geometry, very thin muscles, and ultimately our goal is to print more complicated organs. We can load up the printer heads with different kinds of gels and different kinds of cells and have protocols in place to just print liver, print kidney, print lung.”
“This particular bioprinter, which we recently obtained from probably the number one company in this space in the world - it’s really one of four printers in the whole U.S., and the other one I should say is at a lab down the street, so UVA has two of the four printers made by this company. The other two are in Boston and Miami.”
“It comes with software, a computer to run the software, all of the hardware. Obviously this printer is encased in what’s called a biosafety hood, so we can work with material inside this enclosure that’s sterile and doesn’t get contaminated, and is therefore suitable for implantation back into a living being."
“We’re collaborating with a muscle tissue engineer, and he’s actually in the process of getting protocols into place so he can transplant his engineered muscle into patients in this hospital, so that’s coming in the next year. One of the major hurdles in transplanting anything into a body is the risk of immune rejection, so I think step one is to identify ways that we can print with cells from the same patients who’s going to receive them.”