The future is here, and it lives and beats. Scientists at Tel Aviv University have written the world's first 3-D heart complete with blood vessels using personal "ink" made from collagen, a protein that supports cell structures and other biological molecules.
The extraordinary breakthrough was reported Monday by senior scientist Prof. Tal Dvir, Dr. Assaf Shapira from TAU's Faculty of Life Sciences and Nadav Noor, doctoral student in advanced science.
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It is true that the heart is a rabbit's size, and it actually does not work yet. However, Dvir pointed out that "printing" of a human-sized heart essentially involves the same technique.
"We need to develop the printed heart further," he said. "The cells must form a pumping ability; they can currently contract, but we need them to work together. Our hope is that we will succeed and prove the effectiveness and usability of our method."
In other words, the next step is to cultivate the heart of rodents in the lab, grow and mature it and teach the artificial but biological organ to "behave" as a heart. The stage after it is to transplant 3-D-printed hearts into animals to test their functionality.
It will probably take years before this technology can create organs for effective transplantation, if it ever does. Nevertheless, the Tel Aviv researchers' performance to date has been a major milestone in transplantation science. Tissues have been printed before using three-dimensional printing techniques, but they lacked vascularization – blood vessels – important for utility.
Printed tissues have been made previously, but only simple tissues without blood vessels, the university says. "This is the first time anyone has managed to design and print a whole heart complete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers," Dvir said.
So far, scientists have managed to print cartilage and aortic valve tissues, but the challenge has been to create tissues complete with vascularization: blood vessels, including capillaries, without which the organs cannot survive, less function.
The researchers in Tel Aviv began with fat tissue extracted from humans and separated cellular and non-cellular components. They then reprogrammed the cells to return to undifferentiated stem cells, which could then be pushed to become heart cells or endothelial cells.
The non-cellular materials, including bulk proteins, were processed into a "personal hydrogel" which served as the ink "Dvir" explained.
The technology still in its infants is already used by print agencies for training purposes in medical schools and for doctors to plan complicated operations.
Dvir hopes that the technology can become common within a decade or so, printers and tissues for people who use their own tissues as a base.
Organ printing includes three basic steps. The first, pre-print scene, involves scanning the organ, for example by MR. Step two prints the organ, layers for layers, and the third step means that the pressurized word "matures" in a suitable environment.
The heart has been considered particularly difficult to manufacture because of its pure complexity and the pressure it must endure.
The key to the whole point is that using the patient's own molecules reduces the likelihood of organ rejection, Dvir explains. His greatest hope is that organ pressure will make organ donation obsolete.