The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology recently inaugurated an innovative center for the 3D printing of living cells and tissues at the prestigious university’s Faculty of Biomedical Engineering in Haifa.
The center is expected to add significant value to tissue engineering research and will be open to all Technion scientists and researchers to lead the department “into new areas,” according to faculty dean Professor Shulamit Levenberg, who heads the center.
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“We have many sophisticated printers at the Technion, but this a bioprinter that prints biomaterials and cells,” she tells NoCamels in a phone interview. 3D bioprinting is the process of creating cell patterns in a confined space, where cell function and viability are preserved, creating tissue-like structures that are later used in the medical and tissue engineering fields to correct or even replace damaged tissue.
Tissue engineering has undergone “dizzying progress in recent decades – and the Technion has filled a significant role in this revolution,” the university said in a statement late last month. Technion researchers are developing “complex and precise artificial tissues that significantly improve their integration in the target organ.” For example, some of the work has involved the creation of tissue containing a developed system of blood vessels that quickly connect to the patient’s own blood vessels.
According to the Technion, the new printer is able to obtain the information from a patient’s CT scans and translate it into printing three-dimensional tissue that exactly suits an injured area. Furthermore, it provides tools to design scaffolds and cells that will grow into tissue.
“The printer has different printing heads, each with a different feature such as temperature or UV light. The idea is that you can polymerize the bio-ink while you print,” she explains. This means the printer is able to simultaneously create tissue from various materials including hydrogels, thermoplastic materials, and ointments. “You start with liquid and while printing, you can solidify it in order to be able to make it a structure. So the material, the bio-ink, can be polymerized either by a change of temperature, UV light, light or by mixing different components,” she says.
Levenberg believes that the opening of the 3D bioprinting center will take the research to a new level. “I think it’s a very important step especially in the tissue engineering and biomaterial field because people now realize that the printers are important for engineering tissue for transplantation,” she says.
But how close are we to actually being able to print biological organs that can replace human donations? “I would say the first step is to print tissue for implantation in order to replace damaged tissue in the body,” the Technion scientist tells NoCamels, explaining that the creation of functional organs will be a more complex venture. “Let’s say the tissue printing by itself is complicated because you have a mixture of different cell types that have to be organized in the right orientation, differentiation and function.”
In her research, Levenberg was able to develop complex tissue-constructs including blood vessels in a laboratory that can integrate with the host when implanted. For tissue printing to be successful, she says, it is crucial “to find the right bio-ink, to be able to print the cells in the right location and to make sure that the cells will organize and differentiate themselves after the printing into the right tissue structure.”
In late 2017, Professor Levenberg was involved in a breakthrough study that successfully restored the walking ability and general mobility of paralyzed rats using an engineered 3D construct embedded with human stem cells that also enabled the gradual rehabilitation of damaged spinal cords.
The construct consisted of a 3D tissue-engineered, biodegradable scaffold that provided an environment in which the cells, obtained from human gums, could attach, grow and maintain cell distribution, and provide graft protection following transplantation.
The study was led by Professor Levenberg, also the president of the Israel Stem Cell Society, alongside Dr. Daniel Offen, the head of the Neuroscience Laboratory at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine.
More recently, scientists at Tel Aviv University created a small-scale human-engineered heart in a 3D printing process at the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine led by Professor Tal Dvir, an associate professor at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology. It was touted as the first process of its kind, using a patient’s own biomaterials and cells and paving the way for new technology that would make it possible to develop any kind of tissue implant from one small fatty tissue biopsy.
As research and 3D printing technologies continue to mature, the economic opportunities increase as well. According to a Statista report from 2016, the global bioprinting market is expected to triple its size within a decade and grow up to $4.7 billion by 2025.
Levenberg, who in 2007 was named a “research leader” in tissue engineering among 50 top scientists by the prestigious Scientific American journal, is looking forward to being part of this journey. “There are still some challenges and this is why it is so exciting,” she says. “We still have to develop new things because it’s a relatively new area and I think there is a lot of promise in this field.”
The Technion “offers a great area to advance this field because of its very strong engineering, medicine and life sciences departments – this combination is very important for such a direction,” Levenberg explains. “So I think the Technion is really a great place to have such a printing center.”
Several current studies are going to benefit from the innovative technology now available at the Technion. “We’re working on different types of tissues so we’re hoping for more results soon. For example we have a projects on developing tissues for bone and spinal cord repair, engineering muscle or pancreas tissues and also blood vessels.”
Levenberg emphasizes that the center is “open to all Technion researchers but also for others who would like to use it. More projects using the printer will advance the whole field.”