Engineers develop process to 3D print cells to produce tendon and ligament tissue

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Oct 11, 2018 | By Thomas

A team of University of Utah biomedical engineers have developed a method to 3D print cells to produce human tissue such as ligaments and tendons using a modified 3D printer and stem cells harvested from fat tissue.

People suffering from damaged tendons, ligaments or spinal disc ruptures could simply have new replacement tissue printed and ultimately implanted in the damaged area, according to a new paper published in the Journal of Tissue Engineering, Part C: Methods.

Currently, replacement tissue for patients can be harvested from another part of the patient’s body or sometimes from a cadaver, but they may be of poor quality. This 3D printing technique can solve those problems.

“It will allow patients to receive replacement tissues without additional surgeries and without having to harvest tissue from other sites, which has its own source of problems,” says University of Utah biomedical engineering assistant professor Robby Bowles, who co-authored the paper along with former U biomedical engineering master’s student, David Ede.

The 3D printing method, which took two years to research, involves taking stem cells from the patient’s fat tissue and printing them on the surface of a  hydrogel, to form a tendon or ligament which would later grow in vitro in a culture before being implanted.

But it’s an extremely complicated process because that kind of connective tissue is made up of different cells in complex patterns. For example, cells that make up the tendon or ligament must then gradually shift to bone cells so the tissue can attach to the bone.

Bowles and his team worked with Salt Lake City-based Carterra, which produces microfluidic devices for medicine, to develop a special printhead for the 3D printer that can lay down human cells in the controlled manner they require. As seen in the video below, cells travel through a microfluidic channel in the printer and rest on the surface of a hydrogel.

“This is a technique in a very controlled manner to create a pattern and organizations of cells that you couldn’t create with previous technologies,” Bowles says of the printing process. “It allows us to very specifically put cells where we want them.”

To prove the concept, the team printed out genetically-modified cells that glow a fluorescent color so they can view how they were printed.

Bowles said the technology currently is designed for creating ligaments, tendons and spinal discs, but “it literally could be used for any type of tissue engineering application or even whole organs,” he says. And the technology in the printhead could be adapted for any kind of 3D printer.

Posted in 3D Printing Application

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