3D printing of organs for transplant ‘step closer’

Bio'printing pioneers Alan Faulkner'Jones, left, and Dr Will Shu. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Bio'printing pioneers Alan Faulkner'Jones, left, and Dr Will Shu. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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3D PRINTING of transplant organs “on demand” has moved a step closer thanks to research by a team of scientists in Scotland.

Experts at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University are using a unique 3D bio-printer they have developed in combination with a new gel made from synthetic DNA to enable production of ­artificial organs.

3D printed organs could soon be used. Picture: Jon Savage

3D printed organs could soon be used. Picture: Jon Savage

They said the technique could be used to help ensure copies of body parts including the heart, liver and kidneys are available immediately, potentially bringing an end to waiting times of years for lifesaving transplant operations.

The technology works by mixing cells with the DNA gel before they are “3D printed” into the form of a human organ using Heriot-Watt’s device.

Members of the Edinburgh team, led by Professor Rory Duncan and Dr Will Shu, said the key challenge was finding a suitable “scaffold” to support live cells in 3D which would not be rejected by transplant recipients.

They said earlier efforts to develop the technology had always been hampered by the need to use harmful heating, salt-based and UV processes when solidifying support substances such as collagen or seaweed extract for 3D printing.

The new DNA gel, which has been perfected by scientists at Tsinghua University in Beijing, marks a major breakthrough, they added.

Efforts will now focus on refining the technology, although it is thought large-scale “bio-factories” – able to manufacture stem cells in quantities sufficient for mass-manufacture of organs – are still years away.

Dr Shu said: “If we can get to the point where we can take a patient’s own cells, reprogramme them into flexible, or stem, cells and then reproduce them in order to build a specific organ which we could manufacture, that would really be a very major breakthrough.

“Getting to that point could take decades – but we are already using this technology to produce human tissue for drug testing. It’s very exciting.”

Prof Duncan said scientists had always struggled to mix previous gels with cells for 3D printing and that the new process – which features in the latest edition of science journal Angewandte Chemie International – has sparked hope of rapid progress.

“Colleagues at Tsinghua University in Beijing have developed a gel which, like some proprietary glues, comes as two separate liquids into which cells can be added,” he said.

“These do not turn into a gel until the two liquids are actually mixed together during the printing process. This is a wonderful example of working across disciplines and across geographical boundaries.”