It’s Alive: 3-D Printing Living Tissue

Local researchers are using 3-D printers to develop living tissue that could help burn patients, reduce the need for organ transplants, and replace metal and plastic implants for good.

By | Boston Magazine |

brigham and women's hospital scan

Photography Courtesy of Brigham and Women’s hospital

Three-dimensional printers have been making it cheaper and simpler to manufacture everything from custom sneakers to rocket parts—even if you don’t have a factory at your disposal. Now Boston-area researchers are using the same underlying technology to create living, healing things: cells, tissues, and other biomedical structures that can be printed on demand.

Harvard’s Wyss Institute of Biologically ­Inspired Engineering, for example, is working on developing human tissue that could be used in the future as internal bandages. Bodies can heal small wounds naturally, but if a wound is above a critical size or too severe, it won’t heal on its own, says Jennifer Lewis, a professor at the institute. “By laying [the printed tissue] on top of the wound or placing it in the wound through surgery, it would integrate with your body and become a part of you,” she says.

Ali Khademhosseini, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is working to print heart-tissue pieces from a cell-laden, ink-like substance. His lab hopes to engineer these tissues for transplantation, so one day organ donation would become obsolete. And while 3-D printers can already turn out synthetic hip and knee replacements tailored specifically to a person’s body (currently awaiting approval), ­Khademhosseini and other researchers are looking to print cartilage and bone to ­replace implanted metals and plastics completely.

The technology is not as far-fetched or as far off as it seems: Lewis anticipates he’ll be able to work on animal models within five years.

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