The biomedical engineering program at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) has acquired a rare piece of equipment that can print tissues and potentially regenerate organs. The device works similarly to a 3-D printer and is now a part of the laboratory of Teja Guda, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.
“There aren’t very many organ printers in the world,” Guda said. “We wanted to explore this new space in regenerative medicine since so many at UTSA have those strengths.”
The device is capable of printing cells and keeping them from dying as they would in a traditional 3-D printer, because it operates without heating or high pressure.
“Essentially we’re creating our own materials with embedded living cells,” Guda said. “We load them up in little syringes, insert them into the machine, and it prints the organ layer by layer. Unlike traditional manufacturing techniques, it allows for very thin, complex architectures.”
Guda and his team of graduate students have begun testing the printer with silicone and will soon move into printing grafts for bones, skeletal muscle, pancreas tissue and salivary glands with cell samples from rats. Their research is one of many top-tier examples of the promising biomedical engineering research projects underway at UTSA.
“The proof is in the pudding when we transplant the organ back into the animal and are able to see if it works like the original tissues or organs would,” he said.
Because the organs are printed from a gel of living cells, the challenge is to make sure the organ keeps it shape and the cells stay alive once it’s been printed. The device is also expected to support research into the complications of organ transplantation, including tissue compatibility and survival.
“Transplantation of tissues is a huge challenge because they’re not always successful and they’re limited in supply,” Guda said. “If we’re able to make transplantation significantly more successful, that’s huge.”
According to Guda, the printer might also help engineers print a replacement for a person’s damaged organs, which he predicts will be possible in less than 10 years.
“This is a building block for the future,” he said. “Our students will benefit greatly from having this experience. As a university, we’ve gotten in on the ground floor.”