Researchers Advance Organ Printing Efforts With “Single Cell Resolution” Breakthrough


Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco have announced a new breakthrough in the global scientific effort to print functional, man-made organs. The team behind the project was working on a way of systematically organizing tissue cells, at the single cell level, within the printing process. The functional intricacies found in complex organs are a bi-product of very specific cellular arrangements found within the organ. As organs develop in nature, the cells self-assemble based on complex instructions found within our DNA. Before now, scientists had no way to mimic this level control over the arrangement of cells in organ printing.

Early attempts at “single cell resolution” in organ engineering focused on using 3D printing technology to stack individual cells in their desired arrangement one layer at a time. This method worked to further the science of organ printing as it yielded working proof of concept tissue, but its use in ramped up organ manufacturing is impossible because researchers have a difficult time keeping single cells alive and healthy through the printing process. A method of organically controlling cell arrangement in the developing organ was needed.

Now, researchers have discovered that DNA strands can be applied to the outside of individual cells to cause them to stick to other cells or surfaces during the printing process. This initial discovery was then used by the researchers as the basis of a new method of arranging cells programmatically, resulting in single cell resolution within the printing process while overcoming the problems earlier researchers had with keeping cells healthy and allowing organ tissue to n0w be generated layer by layer with cellular structures that match biologically-made organs.

With the ability to organize cells at the needed level, the next barrier for researchers to overcome is delivering oxygen to those cells to keep them healthy as the organ develops. For this, a parallel group of researchers working in 3D bio-printing has been focusing on building complex, functional man-made blood vessel networks.

“To illustrate the scale and complexity of the bio-engineering challenge we face, consider that every cell in the body is just a hair’s width from a supply of oxygenated blood. Replicating the complexity of these networks has been a stumbling block preventing tissue engineering from becoming a real world clinical application,” explains Luiz Bertassoni, MD, the lead researcher on a team from the University of Sydney researching blood vessel engineering.

Until recently, organ printing experiments started with a healthy organ that would have its organ tissue washed away until all that remained was the complex network of blood vessels that kept the organ alive. These were used as a framework to experiment with tissue engineering, and helped engineers hone cell structure advancements, but this approach is not suitable for any large scale manufacturing efforts because it relies on donated organs. To ramp up manufacturing, researchers need to not only perfect “single cell resolution” printing techniques, but they also need to perfect a method for creating man-made blood vessel structures that will keep the growing organ alive.

Under the leadership of Bertassoni, a team from the University of Sydney, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT has developed a new method of growing functional blood vessel structures by using microscopic fibers to create the shape of the desired network, and then coating those fibers in cell-rich proteins. Over the course of a week, the cells multiplied and arranged themselves around the fibers creating a basic blood vessel structure.

Both the “single cell resolution” and the blood vessel network engineering techniques are far from perfect, but they are promising preliminary efforts in a research endeavor that could potentially take decades. For the first time, researchers now have manufacturing techniques that they can use to develop a all of the components of a fully man made complex organ structure.

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