3D Printing is technology that has emerged from really mechanical engineering and manufacturing technology where the concept it to try to be able to make things in a customizable way. So every time you make something you don’t need to make a mold and generate something that you make repeatedly. So you can have much more control over the kind of stuff that you are making and be able to change prototypes much faster.
So in our case, we’re interested in biological materials. So we can actually make 3D printers that can start printing materials that are hydrated, things that are Jell-O-like materials. And particularly in our specific field we’re interested in making tissues. So once you can actually try to print these kinds of biological materials, then you have an ability to start making structures that look like our natural tissues would.
Our approach is unique in a number of ways. For example, one is that it can be applied to many different length scales, everything from very large blood vessels to small capillaries. And the other thing that interesting about it is that you can apply it to virtually any types of tissue. And because of the fact that 3D printing is a very customizable process, you can think about ways in which you can apply this to different types of areas as well as different types of, different size organs and a variety of other types of customization that you need for individual patients.
One of the major problems in medicine is lack of available organs for transplantation. So right now in the US there are over 120,000 people who are waiting for organs. And many of those people die while waiting. So this is clearly not an optimal situation. So wouldn’t it be great if we actually had a readily available source of tissue what we can make and customize for every patient. So this is where 3D printing comes in.
Some of the tissues that have made the most advance, advance in trying to actually be useful for the patients are things that are very simple organs. So things like cartilage and other tissues that are not very vascularized have already made significant progress. So people are, for example, taking 3D images of let’s say something like an ear or a nose and applying that to 3D printing technology to be able to print a piece of cartilage.
Now when it comes to other organs that are more difficult, for example, something like heart and liver, which are very vascularized tissues, the progress hasn’t been as quick. Because the challenge is we can’t really print these blood vessels with the same kind of resolution and complexity as our natural blood vessels. What we do is we’ve developed a number of different technologies to be able to make these types of tissues that are vascularized. So one way we can do this is literally to print the cells and the materials through the printer so you can actually start generating these structures, literally cell by cell until you get a functional, larger structure.
Now the challenge with that process is that the 3D printing technologies are not very easy to deal with when it comes to actually printing cells. So another approach that we’ve more recently have developed is a process in which we actually print structures originally that look like the, pretty much the holes inside the blood vessels. And then we can form the cells and the tissues around these structures. And once the cells coalesce and form the tissue, we can remove the original structures that we 3D print so that we can actually have the porosity inside these tissues.
With respect to what is the future going to bring, I think one, the future of 3D printing in regenerative medicine is going to be a lot regarding making more complex organs that have the right kind of vasculature, that need the right kind of vasculature to function. And these include things like heart and liver organs. And down the road we think that there is actual opportunities with the right kind of integration, with the right kind of imaging and other kinds of technologies all embedded—we can potentially make tissues that would be customizable for patients and could actually be able to make a dent in the huge number of people who are waiting in the organ waiting list.
We’re also applying 3D printing technologies to other avenues. For example, we’re dealing with collaborators who are interested in bone and regenerating bone structures. So what we’re doing is that we’re applying, again, 3D printing technology with the right kind of precursor cells to the bone to be able to make vascularized pieces of bone tissue that can be transplanted back into patients.
And yet another interesting collaboration that we have is actually to make piece of heart muscle. So we work with collaborators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital to be able to make pieces of tissue that could replace the piece of heart tissue that gets injured during the heart attack.
The team that’s involved in making these 3D printed tissues actually comprise a very multi-disciplinary number of groups. So, for example, we have, of course, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers who are aware of the technologies in 3D printing. And we have material scientists who are aware of the right kind of materials that you need. We have cell biologists, medical doctors, and everything in between. So it’s actually to make, enable this kinds of technologies you need to have a very diverse skill set.
For over a century, a leader in patient care, medical education and research, with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery.