World's first 3D-printed heart shows promise for organ regeneration

By ELAINE CHIAO | April 18, 2019

In recent years, the rapidly evolving world of 3D printing has given rise to numerous products that serve functional or aesthetic purposes. In an ambitious effort, scientists even successfully engineered simple human tissues using 3D printing. However, the latest breakthrough in the field is the creation of a product whose intricacy and complexity exceeds many’s expectations — a complete heart.

This medical breakthrough stemmed from the work done by researchers at the Tel Aviv University in Israel. For the first time, scientists were able to “print” a fully vascularized heart using a patient’s cells. 

The research project was led by Tal Dvir, a professor in the School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology. In a recent press release, Dvir elaborated on the results of the study.

“This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” Dvir said.

The biotechnological process behind this heart regeneration was rather tedious. First, a patient’s cells were reprogrammed into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). At the same time, the extracellular matrix (ECM) that housed these cells was preserved and transformed into a hydrogel-like substance that was used as a form of printing ink. The iPSCs, which was intermixed with the ECM hydrogel, then slowly differentiated into heart-tissue specific cells that served as precursor cells to the development of an entire heart.

The ability to generate 3D-printed hearts has significant medical and clinical implications. For most patients with heart failure, heart transplantation is frequently the only chance at recovery. Unfortunately, the supply of hearts from a limited donor pool is not able to satisfied the high demand. This means that the introduction of 3D-printed hearts could possibly solve the heart donor shortage issue that has plagued the medical field.

There is still a long way to go before this becomes reality. Currently, the first 3D-printed heart is about the size of a rabbit heart. Nonetheless, the researchers are hopeful because human heart regeneration would use the exact same technology. 

“Maybe, in 10 years, there will be organ printers in the finest hospitals around the world, and these procedures will be conducted routinely,” Dvir said.

Travis Chan, a junior at Hopkins majoring in Computer Engineering and minoring in Robotics, Computer Science and Entrepreneurship, has a keen interest in the field of 3D printing. In fact, Chan has built several 3D printers in the past. He finds this new 3D printing milestone to be very exciting.

“With breakthroughs like these, I’m hopeful that 3D-printed organs will save countless lives in the future,“ Chan said.

While the prospect of routinely printing 3D hearts is exciting, Chan noted that there are technical obstacles which must be conquered. 

“There are many challenges ahead. For example, engineering the printed scaffold to withstand the millions of repeated contractions hearts make monthly and integrating printed organs with the body’s nervous system are both difficulties that need to be overcome,” Chan said.

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