First steps to 3D-printing organs accomplished at UW

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The UW’s Dr. Kelly Stevens, a professor of bioengineering, is leading a group of scientists and bioengineers from the UW, Rice University, and Duke University in an effort to 3D-print organs. Their findings were published on May 3 in Science Magazine.

Though the technology to print usable organs is still far in the future, the group has been able to make significant strides by creating a biosynthetic material, creating synthetic liver tissue that was successfully implanted into mice, and by creating a proof-of-concept air sac that mimicked lung functions.

Their first goal was to create a biosynthetic material that could be layered using a 3D printer. The challenge up to this point for printing artificial tissue has been creating a liquid material called bioink that is able to handle the complexity of organs.

Daniel Corbett, a Ph.D. candidate at the UW, compared bioink with traditional 3D printing, highlighting one major difference between the two.

“For a normal 3D printer, you would feed filament in, it would melt the filament into a liquid, and draw it over a build platform,” Corbett said. “Since we are already starting out as a liquid, the way we solidify structures is by pattern exposure. Wherever light hits the liquid bath is where the structure solidifies.”

According to Corbett, in the past, even if the bioink was exposed to a specific pattern of light, the light diffused throughout the product. This resulted in unintended and unwanted structures forming.

To solve this, the group added a series of food dyes to the bioink. The dyes serve as a method of absorbing the light which can be used to expose only the intended portions of bioink to light.

This overcame a decades-long issue in tissue engineering by enabling researchers to create very specific and fine structures. The result was the creation of specific pipe networks, also known as vascular networks.

Vascular networks are a series of networks that move fluids, such as blood, around the body. They also take waste out of the liver and bring nutrients and oxygen into the body.

As a proof of concept, researchers at Rice were able to create a lung mimicking air sac 300 micrometers in diameter. This was designed to be a lung airway system and to achieve fluid mixing through the ventilation of their model.

Corbett talked about how the model was less concerned with demonstrating that the processes can be imitated and more with pushing the bounds of scientific knowledge.

“This provided proof of concept that this type of bioprinting method could be used to discover novel mechanisms and pathways that underlay our physiology,” Corbett said. “We are trying to discover new things by creating things in ways that we haven’t been able to create them before.”

Corbett and other researchers at the UW were then able to create liver tissue which was implanted into mice, proving that the artificial organ can work with the organism and is designed to work with the more translational application of the study.

“Our efforts resulted in the liver work where we used this platform to create implantable engineered tissues that we showed, survived and then grafted in mice,” Corbett said.

This, he emphasized, is just part of why they see this as such a huge breakthrough in the field. They are doing all they can to make the research and breakthroughs accessible, including making everything open source.

Reach contributing writer Hayden Goldberg at Twitter:@KidReporter363

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