SYDNEY, Australia — A new device can 3D print living cells — inside the human body! Researchers in Australia are unveiling a prototype for direct use on internal organs which would serve as an all-in-one endoscopic surgical tool. Engineers from UNSW Sydney say the miniature and flexible soft robotic arm can 3D print biomaterial directly onto organs inside a patient.
3D bioprinting is a process whereby biomedical parts are fabricated from so-called bioink to construct natural tissue-like structures. Bioprinting is predominantly used for research purposes such as tissue engineering and in the development of new drugs. It normally requires the use of large 3D printing machines to produce cellular structures outside the living body.
The research team tested the device inside an artificial colon where it was able to traverse through confined spaces before successfully 3D printing on the surface of organs. Dr. Thanh Nho Do from the UNSW Medical Robotics Lab and his PhD student, Mai Thanh Thai, led this project, in collaboration with other researchers from UNSW.
Their tiny flexible 3D bioprinter has the ability to enter the body just like an endoscope and directly deliver multilayered biomaterials onto the surface of internal organs and tissues. The proof-of-concept device, called F3DB, features a highly maneuverable swivel head that “prints” the bioink, attached to the end of a long and flexible snake-like robotic arm, all of which scientists can control remotely.
The research team says that with further development, and potentially within five to seven years, the technology could help medical professionals access hard-to-reach areas inside the body through small skin incisions or natural orifices. Dr. Do and his team tested their device inside the artificial colon, 3D printing a variety of materials with different shapes on the surface of a pig’s kidney.
“Existing 3D bioprinting techniques require biomaterials to be made outside the body and implanting that into a person would usually require large open-field open surgery which increases infection risks,” says Dr. Do, a Scientia Senior Lecturer at UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering (GSBmE) and Tyree Foundation Institute of Health Engineering (IHealthE), in a university release.
“Our flexible 3D bioprinter means biomaterials can be directly delivered into the target tissue or organs with a minimally invasive approach. This system offers the potential for the precise reconstruction of three-dimensional wounds inside the body, such as gastric wall injuries or damage and disease inside the colon,” Dr. Do continues.
“Our prototype is able to 3D print multilayered biomaterials of different sizes and shape through confined and hard-to-reach areas, thanks to its flexible body.”
The findings, developed with Scientia Professor Nigel Lovell, Dr. Hoang-Phuong Phan, and Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina, appear in the journal Advanced Science. The next stage of development for the system, which has been granted a provisional patent, is in-vivo testing on living animals to demonstrate its practical use.
The researchers also plan to implement additional features, such as an integrated camera and real-time scanning system which would reconstruct the 3D tomography of the moving tissue inside the body.
South West News service writer Dean Murray contributed to this report.