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Welsh scientists advance 3D 'bio-printing' technique

30 December 2015

Plastic surgeons from the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital in Swansea are working to develop 3D printed tissue made from human cells.

A 3D print of a human ear shape - the first stage before mixing with human cells (image courtesy of the researchers)

They hope that in a few years’ time, patients who have lost all or part of their ear or nose through trauma or cancer could have reconstruction using new tissue which is grown from their own cells.

3D printing is increasingly used to manufacture prosthetics and implants from materials like plastic or titanium. But bio-printing – using human cells instead of man-made material – is still a very new science.

The Swansea team has already succeeded in bio-printing small pellets of living tissue, proving that the delicate cells can survive the 3D printing process.

They have also developed a jelly-like support structure, which can be used as the 'ink' for printing the intricate shape of an ear or nose and, critically, which is also compatible with human cells.

The next stage is to blend the jelly and cartilage cells together and 3D print them into bespoke tissue for reconstructive surgery. The resulting part will need to be strong enough not only to withstand a surgical procedure, but to survive indefinitely as healthy tissue afterwards.

This tissue engineering process is ongoing, but it is anticipated that real-life surgical trials could begin in as little as three to four years’ time.

“We want to try and help people who were born with defects, or who have lost parts of their ear or nose as a result of trauma or cancer," says Professor Iain Whitaker, a consultant plastic surgeon at Swansea University Medical School who is heading up the team. "We are using human cells, growing them up, to combine them with a printable material, 3D print them and implant them into the human body."

According to Professor Whitaker, the work is at the relatively early stages of development and requires combining many areas of expertise; however, the team now has proof of concept that human cells can survive within the printable structures made so far, as well as surviving the printing process.

“We’re currently working on growing up large numbers of cells in order to print larger constructs, and undertake a number of tests to ensure it will be stable enough to be used to implant into a patient," adds Professor Whitaker. “It’s very difficult to give a time frame on any medical discovery which is based on scientific principles. But I would say that in two-three years we should be in a position to trial with animals, and within a year after that – pending ethical approval – we should be in a position to trial this in humans.”

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