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Tweaking 3-D Printers to Produce Live Heart Models

A group of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have developed a technique that can transform a range of consumer-level 3-D printers into bioprinters -- producing 3-D models from soft materials that assemble into common tissue.

Kristopher Sturgis

3-D printing
A coronary artery structure can be 3-D printed using the novel technology.

A group of CMU researchers believe they have developed a new method for 3-D bioprinting that can be implemented on a range of consumer-grade 3-D printing machines, through the use of open-source hardware and software. Most bioprinting machines cost over $100,000 and often times require specialized training to operate, while standard 3-D printers can cost as little as little as $1000.

This new technique, known as "Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels," or FRESH, would not only cut costs, but could also serve as a foundation for the printing of soft materials and tissue.

"We demonstrate in the paper that FRESH can be performed with consumer-grade 3-D printers costing as little as $400," says Adam Feinberg, leader of the study and associate professor of materials science and engineering and biomedical engineering at CMU. "To do this, we modified the standard 3-D printer by adding and creating a special extruder that uses a syringe to deposit gel-like materials."

Feinberg added that the designs to transform standard 3-D printers into bioprinters are going to be released under a creative commons license, which allows for anyone to download them and easily create their own 3-D bioprinter.

An infographic from Carnegie Mellon highlights the scope of the heart transplant shortage.

"Our vision is to dramatically increase the number of research labs using 3-D bioprinting for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine research," Feinberg says. "By making the technology more capable, accessible, and affordable, this should spur innovation."

As for their new method of printing with soft materials, they believe the new technology solves the issue of working with soft, squishy materials.

"The reason that soft things are challenging to 3-D print is that they deform easily," Feinberg says. "3-D printing works by creating an object layer by layer, kind of like stacking sheets of paper. But for soft materials, if you print the first layer, it will sag and deform. It won't stay where you put it when you try to print the next layer on top, and then the whole process fails. Our FRESH technique solves this by printing soft materials (hydrogels) inside of another hydrogel."

As for the details of their method, the group actually modeled their hydrogel support system off of Jello -- which is essentially a mix of water and gelatin. Gelatin is made from collagen, a common protein found in the human body, and is part of the extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM essentially serves as the material in our body that gives strength to our tissues, so naturally the group thought it could serve as a suitable support system for a bioprinter to create soft materials inside.

"This way we can 3-D bioprint hydrogels, and even living cells, inside this gelatin hydrogel support," Feinberg says. "The coolest part is that after we bioprint at room temperature, we can raise the temperature to match our body temperature (98.6°F), and the gelatin hydrogel support will melt. This enables us to easily remove the 3-D objects we have created."

Feinberg says that the goal of their study is to eventually print functional tissue. The study's focus is on bioprinting human heart muscle, with a long term goal of 3-D printing heart muscle as a patch to repair myocardial infarction -- a goal he believes they could achieve in the next decade or so. But for now, he believes their technology could still have an impact on today's bioprinting efforts.

"3-D bioprinting as a field has the potential to be transformative," Feinberg says. "Our technology provides unique advantages in 3-D printing scaffolds for tissue engineering applications, and we hope will be widely adopted and used in a range of therapeutic applications as well."

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at Minnesota Medtech Week, November 4-5 in Minneapolis.

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