Sep 21, 2016 | By Benedict

The Christchurch Regenerative Medicine and Tissue Engineering Group (CReaTE), a multidisciplinary research team at New Zealand’s University of Otago, is using 3D printing to develop new bioprinting techniques and biomaterials in order to repair damaged tissues following trauma or disease.

One of CReaTE's 3D bioprinters

3D bioprinting is seen by many as one of the most important emerging technologies in the ongoing battle against tissue damage, whether brought about by trauma or disease. Bioprinting and biomaterials research is taking place all over the world, but a group of medical researchers at the University of Otago, based in Christchurch, South Island, is making determined strides in the field as it commandeers some of New Zealand's most advanced bioprinting equipment. Using their collective expertise, researchers from a number of fields are working to create human tissue and bone using patients’ own cartilage and stem cells combined with special bio-inks.

CReaTE, the regenerative medicine research group in question, is led by Associate Professor Tim Woodfield, and is working at the interface of cell-biology, biomaterials science, and engineering as it attempts identify the complex cellular environments controlling tissue growth in 3D. The group believes that it will someday be able to complete achieve the much-anticipated feat of creating functioning human body parts. The key to the group's progress, according to Woodfield and co, is a new kind of bio-ink, a supporting gel-like substance used to arrange and nurture human cells as they form.

Associate Professor Tim Woodfield

“We developed a 3D Tissue Assembly where we make hundreds of small tissue modules made up of cells or stem cells, and attach them in layers to a scaffold using our 3D printer,” Woodfield explained. “The cells love being together and this way make a bigger but stronger and more functional piece of tissue.”

Using a special 3D bioprinter—the most advanced of its kind in New Zealand—CReaTE has already been able to 3D print different kinds of human tissue. Depending on whether the researchers are printing bone or cartilage, a particular bio-ink is selected, which then hardens under visible light after printing. This visible light process gives the group’s bio-ink the edge over many others, which typically require UV light to harden. “Our bio-inks allow 85 per cent viability of cells because the process is gentler with visible light,” Woodfield said.

3D printed bio-ink

The Otago research team believes that its 3D bioprinted human tissues could eventually provide life-changing solutions for patients with damaged knee and hip joints. By using human cells and 3D bioprinted tissues, the researchers would be able to encourage the regeneration of damaged body parts in cases where a replacement knee or hip would typically be required. By opting for regeneration instead of replacement, medical staff could help both individual system and the entire health system. “Our clinical research has shown that with obesity and the aging population the need for hip and knee replacements is expected to increase by 270 per cent by 2030,” Woodfield cautioned.

According to the University of Otago, the key application areas for CReaTE’s research are in articular cartilage repair and nerve regeneration, as well as clinical orthopaedic medical device research related to spine and total joint arthroplasty interventions. Its research is divided into three main areas: tissue engineering & regenerative medicine, advanced scaffold design, and bio-manufacturing and orthopaedic medical devices.

Biofabrication scaffolds

A study regarding CReaTE’s unique bio-ink was recently published in the bio-engineering journal ACS Biomaterials Science and Engineering. Its lead authors were Woodfield and Otago research fellow Dr Khoon Lim. CReaTE is also in the process of assembling a “BioFab lab” that will consist of several bespoke 3D bioprinters.

CReaTE goals:

  • Develop biofabrication techniques for generating tissue from patients’ own cartilage cells and stem cells
  • Develop new biomaterials for 3D printing engineered tissues that mimic real tissue
  • Use 3D bioprinters to layer cells or tissue modules into pieces of engineered cartilage and bone



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