Regenerating human tissue through 3D printing

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Iris Rivero, left, professor of industrial and systems engineering at RIT, evaluates a 3D-printed biopolymer structure for tissue engineering with engineering doctoral student, Srikanthan Ramesh. (Photo by Michelle Cometa)

Iris Rivero’s research could lower the need for human organ donations. 

An engineering professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rivero has found that platforms created through 3D printing techniques can help regenerate human tissue that allows the body to heal itself more effectively.

Compatible combinations of polymers and biomaterials can be successfully used to fabricate 3D-printed structures that signal the body to begin its own tissue regrowth. This research moves a step closer to the possibility of smart, 3D-printed bone, skin and cartilage tissue replacement.

“Sometimes organs in the body, due to the magnitude of damage or compromised immunology, are not able to repair themselves, and we have to come up with external alternatives to help them replace themselves,” Rivero says. “What we are seeing today is bioprinting as a technology capable of generating customized platforms that can trigger the necessary signals needed to assist the body to repair itself.”

An extension of traditional 3D printing, bioprinting can create living tissue, bone, blood vessels and, if research continues to progress, whole organs. Though bioprinting hasn’t grown as fast as traditional 3D printing, the field offers huge opportunity to generate patient-specific tissue, taking personalized medicine to another dimension.

By building 3D parts layer by layer, using additive manufacturing principles, bioprinting can add biomaterials, creating structures that resemble body parts. For instance, in tissue engineering bone, ceramic particles added to biopolymers resemble bone structure and strength. 

“The idea is, that once we design a tissue support structure, we then create an artificial environment based on a unique biocomposite material that closely resembles tissue degradation in the body,” says Rivero, department head of industrial and systems engineering at RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, of her research. “For skin regeneration or wound healing, you determine a particular scaffold structure to encourage skin cell proliferation. With different shapes and degrees of porosity, for example, that can serve as a smart wound dressing.”

When attempting to join two bones, a customized scaffold or structure can be inserted to assist in bone regeneration, she says. The scaffold can include cells that make up bone or osteoblast cells, for example, and be able to accelerate the rate that tissue is being formed. 

Srikanthan Ramesh, an engineering doctoral student on Rivero’s research team, says the materials in use are similar to collagen, a body protein.

“We use a hydrolyzed form of that protein, a gelatin,” Ramesh says. “It is biocompatible – your body is already used to it – and it will not be rejected. But that is also part of the challenge we are trying to address: How are you going to make something that the body will not reject?”

Across the globe, businesses and universities are working to realize bioprinting’s fullest potential. The global 3D bioprinting market size is expected to reach $4.1 billion by 2026, according to a February report by Grand View Research. The use of 3D printing technologies in dental implants, prosthetics, bone implants are expected to push growth during the forecast period.  

The medical application segment is projected to expand at a significant pace, as the technology has the potential to reduce the drug development costs, the report says. Chronic diseases and limited organ donors are some factors likely to drive the market further. Some experts, however, warn that ethical issues around growing organs on demand begs attention.

Still, the many applications of bioprinting including its ability to bridge the gap between donors and organs is hard to ignore. In Rochester, Rivero and Ramesh expect to continue to study methods to achieve cell viability on their 3D structures.

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