In a technological breakthrough that holds special promise for the future of stem cell research, researchers at Heriot Watt University have successfully used a 3D printer to create viable human stem cells of a predetermined shape and size, CNET News reports.
The development — which constitutes a novel and unprecedented application of an already-nascent technology — has researchers considering its implications for the future, including the possibility of full scale organ and tissue printing that would make organ donations and transplants less vital for public health:
The printer creates 3D spheroids using delicate embryonic cell cultures floating in a “bio ink” medium. They end up looking like little bubbles. Each droplet can contain as few as five stem cells. Basically, this comes down to the printer “ink” being stem cells rather than plastic or another material.
Dr. Will Shu is part of the research team working on the project. “In the longer term, we envisage the technology being further developed to create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient’s own cells, eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression, and the problem of transplant rejection,” Shu said in a release from Heriot-Watt.
Perhaps most importantly, the stem cells survived the printing process and remained viable. Shu says this is the first time human embryonic stem cells have been 3D printed. Printing out organs may be far down the line, but it’s just one potential application. The method could also be used to print out human tissue for drug testing.
Research into the use of embryonic stem cells has long been considered by scientists to have life-saving — even revolutionary — potential. While some public figures have used stem cells as a platform for political demagoguery, the Heriot Watt researchers’ achievement highlights the gulf between the overheated rhetoric and the promising reality of stem cell research.
The eventual goal of using the technology for organ and tissue printing — including the direct printing of organs into the human body — is particularly significant given America’s shortfall of organs available for transplants. There are approximately 113,000 Americans on waiting for an organ donor at any given time, but only 30,000 transplants are performed every year.