Science One Step Closer to 'Printing' Organs

Science On Step Closer to 'Printing' Organs

Written by Alex Reid
Posted February 5, 2013

Scientists have been experimenting with the use of 3D printing in medicine since the technology has existed, but a team in Scotland have recently made a major breakthrough by using the technology to print human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). The research, which was recently published in the journal Biofabrication, holds the potential to improve drug testing and revolutionize organ transplants.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that hESCs have been printed,” said Dr. Will Wenmiao Shu, co-author of the study. “The generation of 3D structures from hESCs will allow us to create more accurate human tissue models which are essential for in vitro drug development and toxicity testing. Since the majority of drug discovery is targeting human disease, it makes sense to use human tissue.”

This means that drug trials using the printed cells will be much more accurate at predicting the effect on the human body than the animal cells that are currently used. 

The researchers involved in the study, from Heriot-Watt University in collaboration with Roslin Cellab, used a valve-based printing technique to create the cells. “We found that valve-based printing is gentle enough to maintain high stem cell viability, accurate enough to produce spheroids of uniform size, and, most importantly, the printed hESCs maintained their pluripotency – the ability to be differentiated into any other cell type,” said Dr. Shu.

This ability of the cells to differentiate into different cells was a crucial part of determining whether the research would be viable. The scientists performed numerous tests on the cells to ensure they were still alive and functional after being printed. They also examined the concentration, characterization and distribution of the printed cells to measure the accuracy of the valve-based method.

Roslin Cellab, a stem cell technology company, has been a leader in the development of new technologies to impact stem cell research, and plans to continue to work toward 3D stem cell printing for commercial use.

“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,” said Jason King, business development manager of Roslin Cellab.

hESCs are best known for their uses in regenerative medicine, and are derived from the early stages of an embryo before the cell has been 'assigned.' This gives the cell the ability to differentiate into any cell type in the human body. Dr. Shu confirmed the future goals for the continued study of printing hESCs:

“In the longer term, we envisage the technology being further developed to create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient's own cells, eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression and the problem of transplant rejection.”