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Printable organs? Breakthrough: 3D-printed stem cells

Posting in Technology

Researchers claim that they have cracked the code when it comes to using 3D printing to create stem cells -- so what happens next?

Unfortunately, organ donors are few and far between. Even if you have a potential match, after spending a long time on a waiting list, conditions worsen and an organ may not be accepted. The lack of available organs is one that causes hospitals to enter continual battles over the rationing of such resources. As a surgeon I know told me, this can not only strain the relationship between different hospitals, but of course also impact patients.

So what can be done, except finding artificial methods to prolong life until organs become available, or creating substitutes for organs?

A new technique, pioneered by researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland in collaboration with stem cell technology company Roslin Cellab, uses 3D-printing technology -- otherwise used in robotics, gun manufacture and as a replacement for photography -- in the hopes to eventually eliminate the need for organ donation, immunosuppressant drugs and organ transplant rejection.

The new valve-based process takes advantage of the fact that stem cells can now be grown in labs. A printer creates a three-dimensional sphere which contains delicate embryonic cell cultures that float in a liquid medium. These cells are then built up using an adjustable "microvalve" to create layers and encourage cells to spawn.

As stem cells can become any organ in the body, being able to quickly produce them could result in 3D-printed organs specifically tailored to a patient's body.

Dr. Shu said:

"In the longer term, we envisage the technology being further developed to create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient’s own cells, eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression and the problem of transplant rejection."

The team say this is the first time that cells have ever been printed using 3D-printing techniques. More importantly, the cells survived the experimental process, and in the first stages the breakthrough will be used to develop drug-testing products.

Jason King, business development manager of Roslin Cellab, commented:

"Normally laboratory-grown cells grow in 2D but some cell types have been printed in 3D. However, up to now, human stem cell cultures have been too sensitive to manipulate in this way.

This is a scientific development which we hope and believe will have immensely valuable long-term implications for reliable, animal-free drug-testing and in the longer term to provide organs for transplant on demand."

— By on February 5, 2013, 9:26 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure