Can three-dimensional (3D) printing create body parts with living tissue?

Researchers have used a custom-designed three-dimensional (3D) printer that had been modified by engineers to enable printing of living cells. The printer produces a biodegradable structure (scaffold) that can be combined with living cells to create a tracheal segment. The size and shape of the scaffold can be customized for each person.

In a study, the researchers made three types of printed segments: empty segments, segments without cells (controls) and segments that had been combined with living cells. The bioprinted cells were tested for viability, proliferation (cell growth and division) and gene expression. The researchers found that the cells survived the printing process, were able to continue dividing, and produced the cellular properties expected in healthy tracheal cartilage.

The results showed that 3D printing can be combined with tissue engineering to effectively produce a partial tracheal replacement graft in vitro. The data demonstrated that the cartilage cells seeded on the graft retained their biological capability and were able to proliferate at the same rate as native cells.

3D printing has the potential to revolutionize medicine; people are already seeing benefits from the technology in the area of customized prosthetics for limb replacement. Reconstructive craniofacial and cardiothoracic surgeons also have been using 3D printers to build models for more precise surgical planning.

The next phase will be integrating 3D printing and tissue engineering to produce customized biological replacement parts. While further development is necessary before a clinical trial would be viable, the results show that 3D printing technology is a feasible alternative to traditional treatments.

It's important to note that 3D printed tissue is not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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