Scientists using 3D printer to build a human heart


U.S scientists are making an attempt to build a human heart by using a 3D printer.

The goal of this exercise is the creation of a new heart with the patient’s own cells for later transplantation.

This is an ambitious plan by scientists as it involves making the heart and then reaching a point where it works in a patient. It could be years or decades before one of these 3D printed hearts could be placed in a person.

This technology is not at all futuristic. 3D printers have already been used to produce a human ear, valves and splints.

Thus far, researchers at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, have already printed human veins and heart valves with cells. They are able to construct some of the parts required by using different methods. Professor Stuart Williams, a cell biologist who is the leader of the project, has stated that they have had success in testing the small blood vessels on mice, as well as other small animals. He believes that they will be able to print parts and assemble a whole heart within three to five years.

Once completed, the finished heart would be called a ‘bioficial heart’ as it will be a blending of natural and artificial.

The biggest challenge facing the team is to get the cells to work in unison as is done in a normal heart. Professor Williams from the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute who is working on the project with the Jewish Hospital in Louisville said that rejection problems patients often face with artificial and donor organs could be eliminated if the organ is built from cells taken from the patient. It will also eliminate the requirement for the patient to take anti-rejection drugs.

According to Professor Williams, if all goes well, the heart could be tested in a human in less than 10 years. The initial patients will more than likely be patients whose hearts are failing and who are not candidates for artificial hearts. The initial group may include children who are unable to obtain artificial organs due to the small size of their chests.

Prof Williams has stated that he envisaged the heart to be built from fat cells taken from the patient. However, he has said that there are many difficulties to overcome, including the knowledge to keep the manufactured tissue alive once it has been printed.

Dr Anthony Atala from Wake Forest University is part of a team making use of 3D printers to try and build a human kidney. He has said that one of the biggest challenges with complex organs such as the heart and kidney is providing the structure with sufficient oxygen for it to survive until it starts integration with the body.

This approach is not the only option available to scientists right now. Scientists are in the process of exploring the idea of using moulds in which to place the cells. Scientists have experimented by making rodent hearts where they have achieved a heartbeat in the laboratory. Some of the more simple body parts, such as windpipes and bladders have been made by the use of this method and have been implanted in humans.

3D printers operate in much the same manner as inkjet printers. It uses a needle to squirt the material into a predetermined pattern.

Purification of the cells will be done in a machine before printing commences in sections. A computer model would be used to build the heart in layers. The printer makes use of a combination of living cells and gel to slow build up the shape. The hope is that the cells would eventually grow together to form the necessary tissue.

This technology has already been used in other medical areas.

Image credit: cori kindred


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