For the first time human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) have been used in a 3D printing process and retained the properties
that make them unique.
Researchers working in the field of 3D printing - in
which differently shaped objects are produced from digital models - had already
used other stem cells in experimental techniques. hESCs, which are prized for their
ability to develop into any other kind of cell in the body, are fragile and had not
previously been used.
But scientists at Heriot-Watt
University in Edinburgh used the cells
like components of the ink in a conventional printer to produce 'spheroids' of defined shapes and sizes. Control of the
dimensions of the spheroids is important as hESCs require tightly regulated
conditions in order to function correctly.
Will Shu, who led the study, said that the technology was 'gentle enough to
maintain high stem cell viability, accurate enough to produce spheroids of
uniform size, and most importantly, the printed hESCs maintained their pluripotency - the ability to differentiate into any other cell type'.
The study reports that
99 percent of the cells tested were considered viable after printing. The
cells were originally sourced from an embryonic kidney and from a well-known
embryonic cell line. After growing in culture they were housed in a reservoir -
an 'inkwell' of sorts - before being pumped through the valves of the printer.
One of the possible eventual applications of this
kind of technology would be in producing tissue
samples for drug development that would reduce the need for animal
testing. Further down the line, Dr Shu adds, 'we envisage the technology being developed to
create viable 3D organs for medical implantation from a patient's own cells,
eliminating the need for organ donation, immune suppression and the problem of
Jason King, business development manager at Roslin
Cellab, a biotechnology company working with the university research
team, called the study a 'scientific development which we hope and believe
will have immensely valuable long-term implications for reliable, animal-free
drug-testing and, in the longer term to provide organs for transplant on demand'.
The research is published
in the journal Biofabrication.