Researchers at the University of Virginia’s Bio-Engineering lab are planning to create human tissue using 3D printing technology.

While bio-printing is more complex than conventional 3D printing, Head of the Bio-Engineering lab, Shayn Peirce-Cottler and her team are hopeful that they will successfully construct human tissue using the bio-printer – one of only three in the US.

The printers deposit thin layers of cells in thin layers on a gel substance known as “biopaper.” The cells bind to the gel to create a proper structure for the layers of cells to grow into tissue.

According to Pierce-Cottler, the printed cells behave like living tissue and will grow and shrink in the same way that living cells do. “We have to anticipate the growth and remodelling that tissue is going to undergo after we print it,” said Peirce-Cottler.

Peirce-Cottler and her team are also working on printing blood vessels which will circulate blood and oxygen throughout the tissues.

“Once we get over that critical barrier, we can print any tissue. That is the main bottleneck — getting the blood to the cells,” Peirce-Cottler explained.

While the technology has not been used to print human tissue yet, the team are already using the bio-printer to solve clinical problems such as “printed” pancreatic islets, clusters of cells that can produce the hormone insulin, to be transplanted into diabetic patients.

“They’re what stops functioning properly when you have diabetes,” said Peirce-Cottler, adding that those cells normally have to be donated for these transplants.

The team is also planning on constructing muscle tissue that could be used to treat craniofacial defects, such as cleft palettes.

Peirce-Cottler noted that researchers interested in using the technology would also need to find a way to keep the body’s immune system from attacking implanted tissue.

“I think it’s important for all medical students — all people going into the medical field — to understand this technology because it’s going to change the face of medicine,” said Korey Marshall, a student at UVa’s School of Medicine.

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