A breakthrough in 3D printing could herald the end for the need to conduct clinical trials on animals.
The prospect was first muted after researchers at Harvard University developed micro-physiological systems, called “organs on chips”, which are able to replicate the functions of human organs such as bone marrow, lungs, intestines and kidneys. The first 3D-printed human liver on a chip was created in San Diego in 2014.
Ending testing on animals is now a step closer, with the fabrication of 3D-printed heart tissue. This is something which had been achieved previously but the difference now is that the chips have sensors embedded into them, so scientists can record crucial data. This was made possible with the development of special inks constructed with glucose-related molecules.
The chips created by this 3D printing service, roughly the size of a memory stick, are constructed with transparent polymer and incorporate simulated blood vessels. External forces are applied to these “organs” to resemble the physical movement of living organs and the chip reacts as it would in a living person.
This new technology demonstrates how the platform can be employed to create functional tissue.
Because of the complicated nature of these organs on chips, you cannot print one with your own 3D printer. Even a 3D printing bureau would not have the specialist expertise for this type of printing.
Because each device is printed in 3D, it can be independently tailored for specific purposes. Stem cells from a patient can be developed as cells for any organ in the body and by integrating sensors, researchers are able to gather data which is relevant to a particular individual.
The cells can also be manipulated to replicate a diseased organ, thereby giving researchers the opportunity to see how it reacts to chronic toxic substances, as the cells improve their ability to contract, just as a living heart would. This offers a platform for drug screening without invasive procedures taking place on an actual person.
Researchers were previously hindered because they were unable to detect the tiny changes which take place during tissue development. With sensors now integrated into the chip, they can monitor the reaction of that tissue.
As pharmaceutical research often involves the testing of tens of thousands of chemical compounds, this is a critical development in the fight against heart disease. Laboratory trials for a new drug typically take years before they are deemed safe for clinical trials and the costs can be prohibitive. This new process cuts the time span and is considerably more cost-effective.
Furthermore, the testing of new drug treatments often involves the killing of thousands of animals. Animal activists maintain this is an unnecessary process because animals cannot accurately replicate the responses found in humans.
At the moment, the process is focussed on creating heart muscle, though there is research being undertaken to create heart valves and blood vessels. Heart tissue is easier to create than many other organs because it is basically just muscle and electrical pulses.
The 3D printing service industry is working hard to develop bioprinting for use by medical professionals. The industry is now looking at replicating printed tissue from the pancreas, which will help researchers combat the growing incidence of diabetes.