Three-dimensional printers are fast becoming everyday devices in the United States. Three-D printers are used to make everything from automobile parts to bone replacements for human patients. American research scientists are now working on creating replacements for living tissue.
Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina have been working on creating and manufacturing living tissue since 2003. This process is called biofabrication. It requires special printing equipment and a special kind of ink.
Traditional printers require ink to produce an image or design on a piece of paper. For their three-D printer, the South Carolina researchers prepare complex nutritious solutions they call bio-inks. Bio-inks are made of proteins and glucose, which normally provides energy for most cells of the body. The researchers also add living cells taken from the animal that will receive the new, printed tissue. The bio-inks are then added to a device that researchers call the Palmetto bio-printer.
Sarah Grace Dennis is one of the researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina. She says new technology, like the Palmetto bio-printer, is a great help to the biofabrication process.
"When I got here a year ago, we were printing a-cellular bio-inks to see if patterns could be printed. And now we are printing skeletal muscle replica implants that we have been implanting into rats."
The bio-inks are placed in three dispensers, containers, inside the printer. Lasers control both the position of the printing surface and the places where the bio-ink is released.
Michael Yost is a leader of the research team. He says the printing process is fully automated - - machine-operated. He says that the Palmetto bio-printer makes it possible to create complex tissue types.
"And with our 3-D bio-printer, we have been able to create new microvascular networks that we can then grow new tissues in very key areas such as pancreas, liver and kidney."
The researchers say bio-printing is still experimental. But they hope in a few years they may be able to print tissue to replace damaged human organs.
But there are still concerns with biofabrication. Some scientists worry about how to get blood to the replacement tissue. The flow of blood is important to keeping the printed tissue alive.
Michael Yost hopes that more people will believe in the benefits of biofabrication.
"Tissue biofabrication is a reality, and it is a reality now, and if you come here and you get to see it. You will get to see it. You can not touch it, but you will see it and think this is real. And this is really human."
I'm Jonathan Evans.