The advent of 3D printing has been a great aid to the medical community since it was introduced to the public, producing everything from low-cost prostheses to synthetic medicines to medical models and heart valves. However, the latest innovation in bio-industrial 3D printing might be the biggest step we have toward creating fully-functional man-made organs yet: 3D-printed blood vessels that are more or less dead ringers for the real thing.
In a report published by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), scientists detailed their steps to producing synthetic blood vessels, all with the help of bioprinting. Like 3D printers, bioprinters produce three-dimensional models with the use of a preloaded blueprint and synthetic materials, but unlike the former, which use polymer liquids, resins or other bases of that ilk, the latter use "bio-ink," materials that are "compatible with the human body":
This process takes a while, so initially, tubes are printed out of cells and other biomaterials to deliver essential nutrients to the surrounding printed environment. Eventually, the self-assembled capillaries are able to connect with the bio-printed tubes and deliver nutrients to the cells on their own, enabling these structures to function like they do in the body.
Monica Moya, one of the lead researchers and principle investigators on the project, said that the combination of biology and engineering allows for finer resolution of printed tissue and that, with the body's natural ability for self-directed growth, the end result is truer to physiology.
While the bioprinted vessels aren't viable when it comes to transplants, they're useful for studies that have to do with toxicology or general medical treatment, which decreases the necessity for animal testing.
The LLNL's research might also be a key step in one day producing man-made organs; the precision and high resolution quality that go into creating synthetic blood vessels is also necessary for creating larger works, or even "organs on a chip," shorthand for "synthetic human organs that are simulated on chips."
"It's going to change the way we do biology," concluded Moya.
Learn more about how a bioprinter can produce synthetic blood vessels in the video below.