Unlike other body parts, heart tissues are incapable of seal-healing once damaged. Fortunately, the scientific community continue to hack modern technology into solving life's most complex health problems.
Conventional 3D printers in the market build 3D output using hard materials like metal or plastic. They work by dropping the material layer by layer onto a hard surface in order to build a 3D object. This type of printing requires a strong foundation to support the layers, which makes printing using soft materials like gel impossible, at least before researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) hacked into a traditional 3D printer.
CMU researchers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania developed a novel way of printing 3D objects using soft materials. By printing 3D objects inside a 'support bath', the team 3D printed one layer of gel on top of another layer to create coronary artery structures.
"We've been able to take MRI images of coronary arteries and 3D images of embryonic hearts and 3D bioprint them with unprecedented resolution and quality out of very soft materials like collagens, alginates and fibrins," said Adam Feinberg, Carnegie Mellon University's associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering. In essence, the hacked hardware accurately prints out gel, layer after layer, inside a support bath.
The researchers dubbed their novel technique 'Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels' (FRESH). After the 3D printing process, the 'support bath' can be melted away though heat. This 'melting process' will not impair the delicately bioprinted materials made of tissue cells like fibrin or collagen.
Majority of the 3D bioprinters in the market have a price tag of over $100,000. Apart from the huge cost, bioprinters also require specific expertises that can operate them. These factors limit their potential for widespread utilization in the medical field. Feinberg's team were able to utilize the FRESH technique using 3D printers targeted to the average consumer. These traditional 3D printers cost a little less than $1,000 and use software that can be tweaked.
The researchers added that by means of open-source software, they were able to modify the process to produce maximum quality 3D bioprints. Feinberg's team is gearing up for the stage 2 of their study: integrating heart cells into the 3D bioprints.
The researchers published their study in Science Advances journal.