US DOD behind 3D printed live organ development

Miniature human organs developed with a modified 3D printer are being used to test new vaccines in a lab in the US.  The “body on a chip” project replicates human cells to print structures which mimic the functions of the heart, liver, lung and blood vessels.

The organs are then placed on a microchip and connected with a blood substitute, allowing scientists to closely monitor specific treatments.

The US Department of Defense has backed the new technology with $24m (£15m).

The modified 3D printers, developed at Wake Forest, print human cells in hydrogel-based scaffolds.

The lab-engineered organs are then placed on a 2in (5cm) chip and linked together with a circulating blood substitute, similar to the type used in trauma surgery.

The blood substitute keeps the cells alive and can be used to introduce chemical or biologic agents, as well as potential therapies, into the system.

Sensors which measure real-time temperature, oxygen levels, pH and other factors feed back information on how the organs react and – crucially – how they interact with each other.

Dr Anthony Atala, institute director at Wake Forest and lead investigator on the project, said the technology would be used both to “predict the effects of chemical and biologic agents”.

A group of experts from around the US is involved in putting together the technology, which will carry out toxicity testing and identification.

The funding for the project was awarded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a division of the US government which combats nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

It takes about 30 minutes just to print a miniature kidney or heart, which is the size of a small biscuit.

“There are so many cells per centimetre that making a big organ is quite complex,” Dr Anthony Atala told the BBC.

But the bioprinting of full size solid organs might not be far away.

“We are working on creating solid organ implants,” said Dr Atala.

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