A team of researchers at Tsinghua University in Pekin, China and Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA have developed a method that uses 3D-printing to produce arrays of embryonic stem cells. With great uniformity and homogeneity, these arrays of stem cells could be used to make specialized tissues and once the technique is perfected, potential complete micro-organs.
3D-printing is a technological concept with numerous applications including high precision plastic modeling [2, 3], fancy food printing , metal printing , and so forth. A new application emerges using the concept of printing extruded layers of material, cell printing, with the potential to generate complex tissues thanks to the use of embryonic stem cells.
The group of researchers, led by Wei Sun, managed to produce 3-D grid-like cellular structures where an embryonic body was successfully grown with high cell viability and steady self-renewal for seven days . All these, while maintaining high cell pluripotency, which is the ability in cells to differentiate into other cell types. The more cell types a cell can differentiate, the greater potency this embryonic cell has.
An Efficient Cellular Growing Matrix
Sun points out that being able to produce this embryonic body in such controlled way with good homogeneity and uniformity over the growing process will open the door to the further development of complex tissues.
These two characteristics, homogeneity and uniformity, dictates the cells ability to proliferate. State of the art growing mechanisms, 2-Dimensional printing in Petri dishes and, the “suspension” method where stalagmite-like structures are built by deposition of cells using gravity yields lower cell uniformity and homogeneous proliferation, according to Dr. Sun.
Creating Complex Structures
The authors attribute these good results to the similarities a 3D-printed environment present to a real-life situation where embryonic cells differentiate inside a live embryonic body. This environment favours successful cell growing and proliferation.
These growing matrices can be seen as the building blocks of organs inside the body. With these embryonic cells, specialized tissues can be generated and in turn, a functioning micro-organ could be potentially grown (or 3D-printed, at least at the start) once the process is scaled to a larger capacity.
The next step in this research, is to explore the ability to control the size of the embryonic body by adjusting the structural and printing parameters. This ability will allow to produce distinct embryonic bodies within the same printed structure.
It is clear the future is bright for this technology. The results delivered by this group could be used by other researchers to study tissue regeneration, impact of drug delivery methods in certain type of organs and genetics. With the ability to control the differentiation of these embryonic bodies, it is possible to develop heterogeneous cell types within the same matrix and as a result, researchers will be able to obtain micro-organs from scratch inside the laboratory.
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Luis Felipe Gerlein Reyes
Luis Felipe Gerlein R. is a Ph.D. candidate at ÉTS. His research interests include nanofabrication and characterization of optoelectronic devices based on lead chalcogenides, carbon-based nanostructures and perovskite materials.
Program : Electrical Engineering