Every year, nearly 600,000 Americans die from heart disease. Other vital organs are able to regenerate after sustaining damage, but heart tissue cannot heal itself. As many as 4,000 people are currently on the heart transplant waiting list because it’s the only option for survival. That’s why new research in 3-D bioprinting happening at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has attracted a lot of attention. This vital research may completely transform how doctors treat heart disease and, eventually, 3-D printed tissue and organs may eliminate the need for organ transplants altogether.
News of this research came to light in an article published in the October 23, 2015 issue of Scientific Advances. A research team led by Dr. Adam Feinberg, an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, has developed a method to 3-D print tissues that may eventually be used to repair hearts and other organs. “We’ve been able to take MRI images of coronary arteries and 3-D images of embryonic hearts, and 3-D bioprint them with unprecedented resolution and quality out of very soft materials like collagens, alginates and fibrins,” said Feinberg.
Previously, 3-D printing could only be done with sturdier materials such as plastics because the printing machines deposit printing materials layer-by-layer. Malleable, softer biomaterials were impossible to use because the printed object would collapse under its own weight. “3-D printing of various materials has been a common trend in tissue engineering in the last decade, but until now, no one had developed a method for assembling common tissue engineering gels like collagen or fibrin,” said TJ Hinton, a Carnegie Mellon graduate student. According to Feinberg, researchers overcame the structural issues by “printing these soft materials inside a support bath material,” he says. “Essentially, we print one gel inside of another gel, which allows us to accurately position the soft material as it’s being printed, layer-by-layer.”
This revolutionary printing technique uses MRI images to print various heart tissues. After they are printed, a syringe injects layers of biomaterial into the mold made from support gel. After the second layer solidifies, the support layer is completely dissolved by being immersed in room-temperature water. This process leaves the remaining layer supported and intact.
Feinberg and his team’s discoveries are even more amazing because their research wasn’t conducted using expensive $100,000 bioprinters, but on consumer-quality 3-D printers that cost about $1,000. The researchers were also resourceful and saved money by using using free, open-source software and hardware. The work of Feinberg’s team has earned them a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to eventually create a functioning human heart out of living cells and hydrogels.
After their recent success, the sky is the limit for this new bio technology. “Traditional 3-D printers print hard materials and were really trying to move that into a whole new range of soft materials that will eventually let us print living things,” Feinberg says. Jim Garrett, Dean of Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering, agrees. “We should expect to see 3-D bioprinting continue to grow as an important tool for a large number of medical applications,” Garrett Says.