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Bioprinting blood vessels

By David, 25 July 2014 News

Diagram of human showing blood vessels.

The network of blood vessels around your body is very complex.
Image: © iStock.com/traveler1116

Written by Sarah Kellett

3D printers can create toys, bicycle parts and models of dinosaur bones. Bioprinters are 3D printers with a difference. They can actually print structures containing living cells, the same kind of cells that make up the human body!

New organs on demand

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could have a new liver or kidney printed for you, if yours was damaged by an accident or disease? It’s a big dream, but scientists are working on the problem now.

One big obstacle to bioprinting a whole organ, like a liver, is that it needs a big network of blood vessels to keep the cells alive. Blood provides cells with life-giving oxygen and nutrients, and also removes waste. Most cells are just a hair’s width from a supply of blood. Blood vessels need to reach everywhere – it’s a big challenge.

Printing veins

Luiz Bertassoni from the University of Sydney is part of the team that has bioprinted blood vessels. The team used two different materials, which were fluid enough to print and then could be made solid. “One material can be solidified with low temperature, it’s a material from seaweed called agarose,” he says. “The other is a jelly-like material (from gelatine), which was solidified by light. Using a combination of both was one of the tricks we had to use to create these vascular networks.”

To create the blood vessels, Luiz used a 3D printer to make a network of agarose. Once the agarose was solid, the structure was covered with a gelatine-like material containing living cells. “Then we removed the agarose structure that we printed, and ended up with little channels left behind,” he says. When endothelial cells – the kind that form blood vessels – were put in the channels, they organised themselves to cover the channel without clogging it. A fluid, such as blood, could pass through this bioprinted blood vessel.

“We’re excited about getting one step closer to creating fully-functional organs, but we’re still a number of years away from that,” says Luiz. “We hope that sometime soon we will be able to create functional organs that could be implanted in patients.”

Share with us

To me, 3D printing is a really exciting technology and I think about the amazing things it could do. Could it build research stations on the Moon one day? If you have any big ideas, post them in the comments below.

More information

A different team are working on printing tissues

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