“We’ve been able to take MRI images of coronary arteries and 3-D images of embryonic hearts and 3D print them with unprecedented resolution and quality out of very soft materials like collagens, alginates and fibrins,” said Adam Feinberg, an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
“The challenge with soft materials is that they collapse under their own weight when 3-D printed in air,” explained Feinberg. “So we developed a method of printing these soft materials inside a support bath material. Essentially, we print one gel inside of another gel, which allows us to accurately position the soft material as it’s being printed, layer-by-layer.”
With this new FRESH (Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels) technique, after printing, the support gel can be easily melted away and removed by heating to body temperature, which does not damage the delicate biological molecules or living cells that were bioprinted. As a next step, the group is working toward incorporating real heart cells into these 3-D printed tissue structures, providing a scaffold to help form contractile muscle.
Most 3-D bioprinters cost more than $100,000 and/or require specialized expertise to operate, limiting wider-spread adoption. Feinberg’s group, however, has been able to implement their technique on a range of consumer-level 3-D printers, which cost less than $1,000 and use open-source hardware and software.
“Not only is the cost low, but by using open-source software, we have access to fine-tune the print parameters, optimize what we’re doing, and maximize the quality of what we’re printing,” Feinberg said.
More than 4,000 Americans are currently on the waiting list to receive a heart transplant. With failing hearts, these patients have no other options; heart tissue, unlike other parts of the body, is unable to heal itself once it is damaged.