Human body parts made by machines might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but that technology is becoming reality right here in Colorado.
Denver University is currently experimenting with a 3D bioprinter after forming a partnership with Denver’s 3D Printing Store.
The printer, called BioBots, allows researchers to create made-to-order replicas of organs, tissues and other parts.
“We’re really trying to take what’s become an accessible tool and use the most sophisticated thinking that we can to create something that will benefit all people,” said DU graduate research assistant Ben Stewart.
DU has started printing custom replicas of heart valves using patients’ MRIs and CT scans. It took Stewart only 22 minutes to create an example.
“This exactly matches the shape of a patient’s heart valve,” Stewart said, holding the finished product, a small elastic cylinder.
To be functional inside a human body, Stewart explained that what he created would need to go into a vessel called a bioreactor with human cells. In an ideal scenario, the cells would attach to the replica heart valve, take on its shape and then the replica would dissolve. Stewart compared the replica heart valve to scaffolding on a building.
“Those native fibers and native cells, they replace the entire scaffolding leaving nothing but natural, real blood vessel cells,” he said.
The lab still has a long way to go before its valves reach a real beating heart, but that’s the goal. The technology could be especially valuable to children who need heart valve replacements and currently have to rely on prosthetics.
“That (prosthetic) valve cannot grow as the child grows,” said Dr. Ali Azadani, Director of the DU Cardiac Biomechanics Lab. “So those patients typically need to go through multiple surgeries for their aortic valve. That’s very invasive, and that’s not the best approach. By designing tissue engineered valves, we can implant a valve in the heart that can grow with the child.”
The 3D Printing Store purchased the BioBots printer and brought it to DU’s lab for use.
“Some of the people that I know have said, ‘This would change my niece's life,' or 'This would change my friend's life,’” said store co-founder Debra Wilcox.
Elsewhere, BioBots has printed a replica of a human ear.
“It’s not like there’s been this huge body of research out there that we can go and look at and learn from,” said Wilcox. “We are writing that book, and they’re writing important chapters right here at DU.”