When it comes to 3D printing resources, the global medical industry has arguably the richest supply on which to draw. 3D printing technology has been instrumental in an incredible range of world-firsts, ranging from sternum replacements to facial transplants and everything in between.
However, one of the Holy Grails here is to use 3D printing to create living tissue – Australian scientists have now printed living brain cells that survived up to a month.
Not Your Father’s Frankenstein
Sure, printing living tissue sounds a bit like something Dr. Frankenstein would get up to in his lab, surrounded by huge chains, massive machines and lots and lots of lightning. This isn’t that.
Australian scientists working in Melbourne have officially used 3D printing techniques to create living human brain tissue that survived not just the initial test period, but for a full 30 days. The cells in question were cortical tissue, and the achievement came from the Centre for Neural Engineering at the University of Melbourne.
The team was led by Professor Stan Skanfidas, and the tissue was grown from human stem cells. They were 3D printed using the university’s bio 3D printer.
Six layers of brain tissue were created, and believe it or not, they were capable of forming connections, communicating and forming a folded, proto-brain structure on their own.
The professor explained that this is a very important breakthrough for the medical community, particularly for treatment of conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism, as well as schizophrenia. It’s hoped that scientists will eventually be able to grow brain samples from patients and test medications that way, rather than through animal testing.
“One hypothesis for schizophrenia and autism is that maternal inflammation early in pregnancy, which starts the trajectory toward these problems later in life,” explained Professor Skanfidas. “We can mimic that insult in the dish and see how it affects development.
Soon, we’ll be able to cut out the hippocampus, experiments that would otherwise be unethical in humans.”
Don’t look for those types of experiments in the near future, though. The technique still has a long way to go.
The growth and sustaining of the brain cells for a month is a huge step forward, but it’s only that – a step.
The lack of blood and oxygen means that these brain cells start to die off after just a month. The next step is to find a way to keep them alive for 100 days at a stretch.
To do this, scientists will have to determine a new way to supply oxygen and nutrients. “If you’ve got the right microbe environment, the mass starts forming a brain, which would probably be equivalent to a 20-30 day fetus,” Skanfidas said.
This is the first required step in understanding the body’s most powerful and little known organ – the brain.