The 21st century print revolution

With an increase in life expectancy and a growing popular interest in sports, the number of injuries and disorders that affect the body are predicted to increase.  These injuries are called Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) and are the leading cause of disability worldwide, with between a third and a fifth of people living with a painful and debilitating musculoskeletal condition.  

Currently, treatments for badly damaged ligaments, tendons or discs do exist, but the procedures are faced with the hurdle of overcoming complex concentration gradients within cells to restore total function to the damaged area. Current procedures involve harvesting replacement tissue from another area of the patient’s body or receiving it from a cadaver. A developing field in tissue engineering, however, is seeking to regenerate lost or damaged tissue through new strategies.

After two years of research by biomedical engineers at the University of Utah, a ground-breaking new bio-printing method has been developed to 3D print cells to create human tissue such as ligaments and tendons. This method involves a patient’s stem cells being harvested from their own body fat. They are subsequently printed on a layer of hydrogel to produce a tendon or ligament which would later grow in vitro, producing viable biological tissues that could be later transplanted into the affected area.

Microfluidic flow cell array (MFCA) is a useful tool used for cell counting, sorting, manipulating and imaging. The researchers have demonstrated that MFCA cell deposition methods overcome the issues surrounding the concentration gradients previously mentioned. The team have been able to apply this method to create a wide-ranging variety of engineered musculoskeletal tissues. They achieved this through working with Carterra Inc., a Salt Lake City-based company that develops microfluidic devices for medicine. By constructing a special printhead for a 3D printer that was previously applied to printing antibodies for cancer screening purposes, the team were able to print human cells in the specific manner required.

Current techniques used carry associated risks, as replacement tissues can be of poor quality and the patient can suffer discomfort due to the difficulty of a procedure. In particular, spinal discs are highly complex structures that are extremely demanding to reconstruct and repair. According to the Journal of Tissue Engineering, this new technology enables a patient with a damaged ligament, tendon or disc to simply have the replacement tissue printed and implanted into the damaged area. Therefore, this technique would greatly improve a patient’s recovery as it would reduce the total number of potential surgeries the patient would have to undergo. The risk of transplant rejection would no longer be an issue, as the cultured cells are taken from the patients themselves, thereby eliminating the need for immunosuppressants. This treatment ultimately holds vast potential for engineering therapeutic replacement musculoskeletal tissues.

This technology is not only groundbreaking for improved patient care but is also significant in relieving a significant socioeconomic burden as MSDs account for the largest proportion of lost productivity within the workplace. In 2011, musculoskeletal conditions cost the US $213 billion, 1.4 per cent of its overall Gross Domestic Product. Although the technology is currently limited to creating tissues such as ligaments, tendons and spinal discs, Robby D. Bowles, a specialist in musculoskeletal research, said the technology “could be used for any type of tissue engineering application.” He hopes to be able to apply it to the 3D printing of entire organs, which could be ground-breaking in the world of medicine. However, when this technology will be advanced enough to provide an alternative to human organ donation is still impossible to predict, as it is yet to reach its true potential.

Image Credit: kaboompics via Pixabay

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