3D printing blood vessels: a key step to solving the organ donor crisis

About 120,000 people in the U.S. are on a waiting list for an organ donation and every day 22 of those people will die because there aren’t enough available organs. To overcome this organ donor crisis, bioengineers are working hard to develop 3D printing technologies that can construct tissues and organs from scratch by using cells as “bio-ink”.

Though each organ type presents its own unique set of 3D bioprinting challenges, one key hurdle they all share is ensuring that the transplanted organ is properly linked to a patient’s  circulatory system, also called the vasculature. Like the intricate system of pipes required to distribute a city’s water supply to individual homes, the blood vessels of our circulatory system must branch out and reach our organs to provide oxygen and nutrients via the blood. An organ won’t last long after transplantation if it doesn’t establish this connection with the vasculature.

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Digital model of blood vessel network. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

In a recent UC San Diego (UCSD) study, funded in part by CIRM, a team of engineers report on an important first step toward overcoming this challenge: they devised a new 3D bioprinting method to recreate the complex architecture of blood vessels found near organs. This type of 3D bioprinting approach has been attempted by other labs but these earlier methods only produced simple blood vessel shapes that were costly and took hours to fabricate.  The UCSD team’s home grown 3D bioprinting process, in comparison, uses inexpensive components and only takes seconds to complete. Wei Zhu, the lead author on the Biomaterials publication, expanded on this comparison in a press release:

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Wei Zhu

“We can directly print detailed microvasculature structures in extremely high resolution. Other 3D printing technologies produce the equivalent of ‘pixelated’ structures in comparison and usually require … additional steps to create the vessels.”

 

As a proof of principle, the bioprinted vessel structures – made with two human cell types found in blood vessels – were transplanted under the skin of mice. After two weeks, analysis of the skin showed that the human grafts were thriving and had integrated with the mice’s blood vessels. In fact, the presence of red blood cells throughout these fused vessels provided strong evidence that blood was able to circulate through them. Despite these promising results a lot of work remains.

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Microscopic 3D printed blood vessel structure. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

As this technique comes closer to a reality, the team envisions using induced pluripotent stem cells to grow patient-specific organs and vasculature which would be less likely to be rejected by the immune system.

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Shaochen Chen

“Almost all tissues and organs need blood vessels to survive and work properly. This is a big bottleneck in making organ transplants, which are in high demand but in short supply,” says team lead Shaochen Chen. “3D bioprinting organs can help bridge this gap, and our lab has taken a big step toward that goal.”

 

We eagerly await the day when those transplant waitlists become a thing of the past.

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