Edinburgh Scientists use 3D Printing of Human Tissues

Scientists at Heriot Watt University have developed a technique that uses 3D printing to produce clusters of stem cells. They believe this could pave the way to produce purpose-built replacement organs for patients. Ultimately, this could eliminate the need for organ donation. The technique would also cut the need for immune suppression and solve the problem of transplant rejection.

The process was developed at the University in partnership with Roslin Cellab. It takes advantage of the fact that stem cells containing a patient’s own genetic code can now be grown in the laboratory. It means that a range of human stem cell cultures can now be grown, generation after generation, in such conditions. As well as transforming transplant surgery, the concept could also speed up and improve the process of drug testing. Specific human tissues and structures could be printed on which pharmaceuticals could be tested.

The research, published in the journal Biofabrication, uses a newly developed valve-based technique. Dr Will Shu (right) and his colleagues at the university’s Biomedical Microengineering group are the first to use this to print delicate embryonic cell cultures. These have the ability to replicate indefinitely and differentiate into almost any cell type in the human body.

According to Dr Shu, “We found that the valve-based printing is gentle enough to maintain high stem cell viability, accurate enough to produce spheroids of uniform size. To the best of our knowledge,” he added, “this is the first time that these cells have been 3D printed. The technique will allow us to create more accurate human tissue models which are essential to in vitro drug development and toxicity-testing. Since the majority of drug discovery is targeting human disease, it makes sense to use human tissues.”

Jason King, business development manager of Roslin Cellab, said that “Normally laboratory grown cells grow in 2D but some cell types have been printed in 3D. However, up to now, human stem cell cultures have been too sensitive to manipulate in this way. This is a scientific development which we hope and believe will have immensely valuable long-term implications for reliable, animal-free drug-testing and, in the longer term to provide organs for transplant on demand, without the need for donation and without the problems of immune suppression and potential organ rejection.”

Until now, 3D printing technology has been used in industries ranging from architecture to jewellery and even chocolate treats. But scientists have also been experimenting with the technique to print artificial cells and blood vessels, building up tissue structure layer by layer. They believe the new process will have immensely valuable implications by enabling scientists to create more accurate human tissue models.

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David Calder has been a broadcast journalist for over 30 years. Before moving to the Caledonian Mercury, he worked for the BBC (national and regional) as well as parts of ITV and the World Service. He worked for prestigious programmes such as The Money Programme, You & Yours, Today and The World at One. He spent two years making mini-documentaries for Radio 5 Live and was a regular correspondent for CBC (Radio Canada). He was a regular reporter on various news and current affairs programmes on BBC Scotland as well as producing or presenting (sometimes both) science, legal affairs and arts programmes. As well as his contributions to the Caledonian Mercury, he is also a freelance producer in Scotland for the satellite channel, Al Jazeera.