Researchers have developed a 3D-printed device that can potentially help patients with prolonged spinal cord injuries regain any function. A three-dimensional (3D) printed guide, made of silicone, acts as a platform for specialized cells, which are then printed on top, says researchers at the University of Minnesota in the United States. The guide is surgically implanted in the spinal cord injury, where it would act as a "bridge" between living nerve cells above and below the area of injury, according to the research published in the Journal of Advanced Functional Materials.  The hope is that this would help patients relieve pain as well as regain some functions like control of muscles, bowel and bladder, researchers say. "This is the first time someone has been able to directly print neuronal stem cells from adult human cells on a 3D-printed guide and make the cells separate from active nerve cells in the lab," said Michael McAlpine, University of Minnesota lecturer.
"This is a very exciting first step in developing a treatment that helps people with spinal cord injuries," says Ann Parr, Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "Currently, there are no good, accurate treatments for those with long term spinal cord injuries," said Parr. In this new process, researchers start with some type of cell from an adult, such as a skin cell or blood cell.
Using new bioengineering techniques, researchers can reprogram the cells into neuronal stem cells. The engineers print these cells on a silicone guide with a unique 3D printing technique where the same 3D printer is used to print both the wizard and the cells. The wizard holds The cells live and allow them to switch to neurons. The team developed a prototype guide that would be implanted surgically in the injured part of the spinal cord and help connect live cells to each side of the injury.
"Everything came together at the right time," said Parr. "We could use the latest technologies for cell biotechnology developed over the last few years and combine it with advanced 3-D printing technology," said Parr. If the next step is successful, the payment for this research can be life-changing for those who suffer from spinal cord injuries, researchers say.
"We have found that recalling signs of injury can improve patients' features," Sa Parr.