The potential for 3D printing in the medical industry has been obvious for decades now. Imagine being able to 3D-print a new kidney instead of trying to locate a suitable transplant. However, the same complications remain present. A 3D-printed organ can be rejected just as easily as a transplanted organ if it isn’t suitable. The same is true for any medical implant, but a team of researchers from ETH Zurich have come up with a development that could dramatically improve the odds. That development is a new universal carrier ink for 3D printers that can be embedded with whatever cells are necessary.
It has long been apparent that 3D bioprinting will need to rely on compatible biological cells, but the problem is how to actually make those cells printable. A conventional FFF (Fused-Filament Fabrication) 3D printer usually prints thermoplastic filament for a reason. That thermoplastic can be melted so that it is liquid and can be squeezed through the extrusion nozzle. After it has been deposited, the thermoplastic is quickly cooled so that it returns to a solid. A 3D bioprinter would have to utilize material with similar properties. Additionally, the differences between organs need to be taken into account. After all, the cells in your liver are dramatically different than the cells in your heart.
This new universal carrier ink solves both problems. It has the consistency of gel and is filled with cellulose fibers so that it will hold its form. When pushed through a syringe, the gel liquefies so that it can be extruded. After being deposited, it regains its semi-solid form. Most importantly, however, the universal carrier ink can be impregnated with whatever cells are necessary. If a liver is needed, liver cells from the patient can be cultured, grown, and then embedded into the carrier ink. That ink can then be used to print the new liver. The cells survive the process, leading to a potentially viable organ. There are obviously still challenges to overcome, and a lot of experiments will be necessary in order to determine how this universal carrier ink actually performs in the real world. But if successful, this new ink could dramatically improve our chances of actually 3D bioprinting organs.