Watch: 3D printing living cells inside human body becomes a reality

The soft robot F3DB was tested inside an artificial colon and a pig's kidney.
Nergis Firtina
Representational picture.
Representational picture.


Three-dimensional bioprinting uses bio-inks mixed with living cells to print natural tissue-like structures. Currently, this technology can be applied to various research fields, including tissue engineering and drug development.

Now, the University of New South Wales, Sydney (UNSW Sydney) engineers have created a tiny, adaptable soft robotic arm that can 3D print biomaterial directly onto internal organs.

Published in Advanced Science on February 19, the research was conducted by Dr. Thanh Nho Do and his Ph.D. student, Mai Thanh Thai, in collaboration with other researchers from UNSW, including Scientia Professor Nigel Lovell, Dr. Hoang-Phuong Phan, and Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina.

The newly developed 3D bio-printed device, known as F3DB, can directly transfer multilayered biomaterials onto the surface of internal organs and tissues. They tested the F3DB inside an artificial colon and a pig's kidney.

"Existing 3D bioprinting techniques require biomaterials to be made outside the body and implanting that into a person would usually require large open-field open surgery which increases infection risks," Dr. Do, a senior lecturer at UNSW, said in a statement.

"Our flexible 3D bioprinter means biomaterials can be directly delivered into the target tissue or organs with a minimally invasive approach," he said

How does it work?

With a three-axis printing head, it directly mounts onto the tip of a soft robotic arm. The printing head functions very similarly to other desktop 3D printers since it is made of soft artificial muscles that allow it to move three dimensionally. Thanks to hydraulics, the soft robotic arm can be bent and twisted to any necessary length. Its stiffness may be precisely adjusted by utilizing various elastic fabric and tube types, as per the press release.

When more sophisticated or arbitrary bioprinting is required, the printing nozzle can be manually manipulated or programmed to print certain shapes. The researchers also used a controller that is based on machine learning and can help with printing.

Like an endoscopic tool

The research team also showed how the F3DB might be utilized as an all-purpose endoscopic surgical tool to carry out a variety of tasks. According to them, endoscopic submucosal dissection, a procedure used in surgery to remove some tumors, particularly colorectal cancer, could be particularly crucial in this situation (ESD).

Compared to the existing endoscopic surgical tools, "the developed F3DB was designed as an all-in-one endoscopic tool that avoids the use of changeable tools which are normally associated with longer procedural time and infection risks," Mai Thanh Thai said.

The technology will now undergo in vivo testing on real animals to see how it works in real situations after receiving a provisional patent.

Study abstract:

Three-dimensional (3D) bioprinting technology offers great potential in the treatment of tissue and organ damage. Conventional approaches generally rely on a large form factor desktop bioprinter to create in vitro 3D living constructs before introducing them into the patient's body, which poses several drawbacks such as surface mismatches, structure damage, and high contamination along with tissue injury due to transport and large open-field surgery. In situ bioprinting inside a living body is a potentially transformational solution as the body serves as an excellent bioreactor. This work introduces a multifunctional and flexible in situ 3D bioprinter (F3DB), which features a high degree of freedom soft printing head integrated into a flexible robotic arm to deliver multilayered biomaterials to internal organs/tissues. The device has a master-slave architecture and is operated by a kinematic inversion model and learning-based controllers. The 3D printing capabilities with different patterns, surfaces, and on a colon phantom are also tested with different composite hydrogels and biomaterials. The F3DB capability to perform endoscopic surgery is further demonstrated with fresh porcine tissue. The new system is expected to bridge a gap in the field of in situ bioprinting and support the future development of advanced endoscopic surgical robots.

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