Bioprinting: What It Is and How It’s Used in Medicine

3D printing to create biomaterials used in research and medicine

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Bioprinting (also known as 3D bioprinting) is combination of 3D printing with biomaterials to replicate parts that imitate natural tissues, bones, and blood vessels in the body. It is mainly used in connection with drug research and most recently as cell scaffolds to help repair damaged ligaments and joints. Bioprinting has been used in medicine since around 2007 and has been employed to help study or recreate almost every tissue, cartilage, and organ in the body.

How Bioprinting Works

A 3D printer is able to provide depth to whatever it’s printing, and a bioprinter does this by distributing biomaterials like living cells, synthetic glue, and collagen scaffolds in layers to create an object. This process is called additive manufacturing—the materials fed into the printer are solidified as they come out to create a 3D object.

But it’s not as simple as putting materials into a 3D printer and hitting a button. In order to get to the additive manufacturing stage, the printer needs to receive a blueprint—a computer-generated image of what it’s trying to create. Then, the materials you want to use for the object as fed into the printer. The printer reads the digital file you’ve given it while printing out the materials you gave it in layers to recreate the desired object. Each layer will cool and stick to one another (thanks to the collagen, glue, or in some cases just the cells themselves), creating one solid, stable piece.

In order to get the living cells (commonly referred to as bioink) to feed into a bioprinter, there’s a number of routes researchers can take. First, they can be taken directly from the patient who they are bioprinting for. Or, if being used for research purposes or in instances when they can’t use a patient’s own cells, adult stem cells can be used, as they can be manipulated for the type of cells needed for bioprinting to recreate tissue.

The blueprint a bioprinter uses is often a scan of the patient. This allows the bioprinter to recreate tissue by referring to the scan and using thin, precise layers in order to build up or print the tissue.

Bioprinting on a Chip

One of the ways 3D bioprinting is currently being used in the scientific and medical communities is for testing regenerative medicine. At the Wyss Institute at Harvard researchers have developed a 3D bioprinter that can produce vascularized tissues of living human cells that are printed on a chip. They use this tissue on a chip to connect it to a vascular channel, which lets researches give the tissue nutrients to monitor growth and development.

The ability to grow tissue on a chip helps researchers examine new techniques in regenerative medicine as well as drug testing. By using a 3D bioprinter researchers are also able to look into different methods of creating chips. One achievement was in creating a heart on a chip, with sensors for research and data collecting purposes. This may have previously required animal testing or other measures.

Bioprinting and Bone Grafts

When it comes to practicing medicine, there’s still much to learn and test in creating bioprinted organs that are scaled to human size. But sizeable steps are being made, such as in the area of bone grafting to fix problems with bones and the joints surrounding them.

The most notable progress comes from researchers with Swansea University in Wales. The team’s bioprinters can create artificial bone materials in specific shapes needed using a regenerative and durable material. Researchers at AMBER Science Foundation Ireland and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland have created a process to support 3D bioprinting of bone material to help with defects caused by tumor resections, trauma, and infection, as well as genetic bone deformities.

The University of Nottingham in England has also made gains in this area of medicine, bioprinting a copy of the bone they are replacing and coating it with stem cells. The scaffold is placed inside the body. Over time, with the help of the stem cells, it is completely replaced by a new bone.

Bioprinting and Regenerative Skin and Tissue

Skin is a successful area of medicine for bioprinting because of the machine’s ability to layer as it prints. Since skin is a multilayer organ, comprised of different cells within each layer, researchers are hopeful that over time bioprinting can help in reproducing the layers of the skin such as the dermis and epidermis.

Researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina are looking closely into this when it comes to burn victims who don’t have enough undamaged skin to harvest to help with wound care and healing. In this case, the bioprinter would get that patient’s wound information from a scanner (including depth and cell types needed) in order to help create new skin that could then be used on the patient.

At Pennsylvania State University, researchers are working on 3D bioprinting that can create cartilage to help repair tissue in the knees and other areas commonly worn down by wear and tear in the body, as well as skin and other nervous-system tissues essential to organ health.

Bioprinting Blood Vessels

The ability to recreate blood vessels using a bioprinter is helpful not only in the possibility of being able to transplant them directly into a patient, but also for drug testing and personalized medicine. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have made gains in this area of medicine by printing agarose fibers that serve as blood vessels. The researchers found that these bioprinted blood vessels are strong enough to move and form larger networks, rather than dissolving around an existing structure.

A Word From Verywell

The research that stems from bioprinting is fascinating, and while there has been a large advancement of knowledge and gains made from the ability to bioprint bones, skin, blood vessels, cartilage, and even organs, there’s still much more progress to be made before many of these practices are adapted into medicine.

Some may be ready sooner than others, though. In the case of bioprinting and skin researcher hope to have the science ready within five years for soldiers who experience extensive burns in combat. Other areas of bioprinting, such as recreating organs for humans to use, still have a way to go in development.

When it comes to mimicking the body’s processes and observing the interaction of certain drugs within the body’s larger system, bioprinting has opened doors in collecting data as well as non-invasive ways to see how the human body interacts with certain substances, which could lead to more personalized medicine for patient’s and less side effects. 

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By Colleen Travers
Colleen Travers writes about health, fitness, travel, parenting, and women’s lifestyle for various publications and brands.