Nov.17, 2014 | By Alec

3D Bioprinting is, thanks to its many medical possibilities, one of the most crucial innovations that 3D printing technology is bringing into our lives. While much of bioprinting technology is still theoretical or years away, one revolutionary innovation is coming tantalisingly close to being integrated into medical treatment: the PrintAlive 3D bioprinter.

This very promising 3D printer first revealed itself to the whole world at the Canadian leg of the 2014 James Dyson Awards, an international design contest for engineering students, where it won first place for a very good reason. For the PrintAlive Bioprinter is a 3D printer that is capable of producing artificial skin grafts that avoids all the nasty consequences of skin transplants. It therefore not only has the potential to improve the lives and conditions of burn victims everywhere, it can also save the lives of patients in a critical condition.

Most significantly, this method can produce transplantable skin cells great quantities in a relatively short period of time, whereas other methods of growing cells often take weeks to cultivate. This is a severely debilitating problem that needs to be overcome, as help simply comes too late for many victims. As the creators noted, 'in severe burn injuries where both the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin are destroyed, prompt wound closure is critical for favourable patient outcomes and reduced mortality rates; after burn injuries, patient survival is inversely proportional to the time required for wound stabilization and coverage, and the mortality rate increases by 10% for every additional 10% surface area burn.'

But there are more advantages. Not only will the PrintAlive use cell structures from the patients themselves to reduce the risk of infection or even rejection by the host, it will also reduce costs through efficiency. As the creators explain, 'our ability to localize high concentrations of human cells rather than homogeneously populating the entire sheet has the added advantage of reducing by up to 75% the number of cells required. This promises improvements in the time required for pre-operative graft preparation.'

Finally, it avoids removing healthy sections of skin from patients all together. Current treatments revolve around creating a second wound to gather material for the first. This is problematic for some victims, especially those with large burn surfaces. Current patients 'with 40 percent burn or 50 percent burn is usually in a hospital about 80 to 100 days,' while this new method would reduce that time to a few weeks.

It's thus in the best interest of everyone that this 3D printer assumes its position in the medical world as soon as possible. We're therefore very happy to report that this printer, that only resulted in a working prototype a few months ago, has now moved to the 'preclinical trials' phase of the medical adoption process. If all goes well, the first trials on patients can begin within the next two years. While difficult to predict correctly, this could mean that this revolutionary method of treating burn victims could be adopted on a wide scale within five years. To get there, however, they will need to find a lot more financial backing and medical researchers.

The PrintAlive Bioprinter has been developed by two University of Toronto engineering students: Arianna McAllister and Lian Leng. It started out as an MASc project for both, after which Leng continued it as a PhD project. Since its inception, it has been adopted for trials by University of Toronto scientists and burn victim specialists from Canada's largest burn-victim treatment center, the Ross Tilley Burn Centre in Toronto.

As dr. Marc Jeschke, the head of that latter institute, argued, this 3D printer doesn't look like much but could revolutionize a treatment method that is in many ways still barbaric. "It's cutting edge. It can mimic how your skin looks, and that the evolvement, that's something new ,that something entirely novel.' While current skin grafts tend to look like scar tissue and features an exhausting, tough and expensive week-long process, the PrintAlive machine can change all that. It can produce skin at a much faster rate, for a lower price, is easier on the patient and results in a skin that looks just like the real stuff.

How does it work? Well, there are some remarkable similarities between this 3D bioprinter, and normal extrusion 3D printing technology. But rather than creating skin grafts layer-upon-layer like an FDM 3D printer produces plastic, their medical machine extrudes a hydrogel that is a kind of 'living bandage'. The gel consists of a mixture of biopolymer, human keratinocytes (a type of skin cell) and fibroblasts (cellular structures that play a crucial role in wound healing).

Extruded in a 3D structure that is resembles the outer layers of human skin, it results in a particularly useful substance for the treatment of burn victims as it can simply be places on top of burn wounds. These are, in effect, just like normal cells from the patient, for the whole process begins with harvesting healthy skin cells from the patient in question.

The red solution (right) consists of skin cells, harvested from the patient.

These form the basis of the 'filament' used in printing. Analysed and multiplied in a laboratory, these are combined with the biopolymer structure that acts as scaffolding. As Jeschke told reporters, 'You basically imprint your various cells into this three-dimensional matrix that comes out and it's basically ready to be put on the patient.'

Researchers hope to add more complex layers to the skin strips, like hair follicles and sweat glands.

So what still needs to be done? While this whole process already sounds perfect, current research is focussing on growing enough cells at a high enough rate. 'That's the current issue, which is how to get cells to magnify, multiply and grow in a speed that's beyond what they normally do,' Jeschke explained. However, they are also studying more complex skin layers, like hair follicles and sweat glands.

While this life-saving 3D printer is thus edging closer to practical usage, we will have to wait a few years before people can benefit from it. But this revolutionary bioprinter is definitely worth both the wait and the investment.


Images credit: CBS News/Alexander Trowbridge

Posted in 3D Printers


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