Taking 3D Printing to Heart…New Steps in 3D Printing Medical Applications

Is 3D Printing Still a Phenomenon… or Not?

By: Eric M. Luyer, Industry Research Analyst

3D Printing has been used for some time now for printing very specific surgical tools or patient-specific parts to complete full functioning of the human body.  But is 3D Printing still a phenomenon… or not?

In my opinion it is certainly amazing when you see the latest developments and you apply biomedical engineering to 3D Printing.  Specifically, in the medical field there are various use cases adopting this rather futuristic technology – you may now print entire organs for practical surgical use!   I have read that scientists and researchers have successfully printed kidney cells, sheets of cardiac tissue that have something like a heartbeat, and foundations for a human liver.

Other relatively new examples are:  bio-printed stem cells which has been done by the Heriot-Watt University of Edinburgh, Scotland-UK of human skin, that can be used for burn victims, skin cancer patients or other kinds of diseases that affects the skin in a negative way. Scientists have also successfully created tests for 3D Printing artificial bone tissue(!) and the hope is that such tissues may assist in helping with limiting sporting accidents that so many athletes suffer from.  I have also seen that medical researchers and scientists are well on their way to printing an entire human organ.

Image Source: Tel Aviv University
Image Source: Tel Aviv University

The latest news is that researchers at the Tel Aviv University have 3D-printed a heart using a patient’s own cells and biological materials. This is a major medical break-through as “this is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers” said Professor Tal Dvir of Tel Aviv University’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Center of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, who led the research for the study.  The research for the study was conducted with Dr. Assaf Shapira, TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences and Nadav Moor, doctoral student in Prof. Dvir’s laboratory. Previously, scientists could print only simple tissues without blood vessels.

Prof. Dvir noted “At this stage, our 3D printed heart is small: the size of a rabbit’s heart. But larger human hearts require the same technology”. He also explained that using the patient’s own cells is key to engineering tissues and organs. “The biocompatibility of engineered materials is crucial to eliminating the risk of implant rejection, which jeopardizes the success of such treatments”, he added.

This is a very important step, because heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the developed world. Heart transplantation is currently the only treatment available for patients with the end-stage of heart failure. The need to develop new approaches to regenerate the diseased heart is urgent.

The researchers are now in a next phase: teaching the printed heart to behave like a heart. “The cells need to form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together” Prof. Dvir explained.  The expectation and hope is that they will succeed in proving their method’s efficacy and usefulness. If this project continues to be successful, the team is planning to transplant the 3D-printed heart in animal models and then in humans.  Prof. Dvir posited,  “Maybe, in ten years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely.”

What about the future? Taking 3D Printing to a next level? While many researchers are expanding the potential of 3D bio-printing by focusing on characteristics such as spatial resolution and embedded vasculature, others are looking at a more literal expansion of the technology—moving it from three dimensions to four dimensions!

4D bio-printing—the printing in 3D of an object with the engineered capability to respond over time to its environment and change in shape (e.g., deforming, twisting, or growing in size) or function (e.g., cellular differentiation, change in cell polarity, or even organ development)—is just one of the many avenues of 3D bio-printing that GE Healthcare is pursuing.

I am convinced that we will see more development in this direction that benefits patient well-being and an opportunity for a better quality of life.

Request your copy of our white paper: “3D Printing and Digital Twins in the Life Sciences.” In this white paper, you will learn more background on:

  • The FDA’s View on 3D printing/Additive Manufacturing
  • Bio-Printing
  • Digital Twin Technology (Simulation and Modeling)
  • Benefits Achieved

See also our related article: Personalized 3D Printing in Life-Sciences.

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