A team of biomedical engineers from Carnegie Mellon University has recently made a major scientific breakthrough after being able to produce the very first flexible, full-size, 3D-print of a human heart. It mimics the structure and elasticity of the real human heart. This recent medical development can provide promising advances in the medical field and can someday save lives.
The first successful attempt
Recreating body organs through 3D-printing is not something new. There’ve been numerous attempts in the past to produce such but nothing came close to this.
Scientists before were only able to produce 3D-printed organs for small animals like mice. The size of the organ and the materials to use have been the most persistent challenges that scientists deal with.
The 3D-printing process we know of makes use of rigid, plastic materials to produce 3D objects. But these materials won’t be suitable for a body organ. Instead, scientists use hydrogels as “ink” but the problem is that they are too soft and they tend to collapse mid-print.
You can now have a FRESH heart
But the new printing technique that the CMU biomedical engineers invented has solved this problem. Known as Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels or FRESH, this new printing method addresses the problem of using materials that are either too rigid or too soft.
Instead of plastic and hydrogels, FRESH makes use of alginate – a soft squishy biomaterial made from seaweeds and feels like human tissue. With this material, collapsing is no longer a problem as it suspends flexible materials inside a container of gelatin.
The process of printing a full-size 3D-printed heart begins with an MRI scan of a real human heart. This first step is crucial as it allows doctors to personalize a 3D-printed heart for patients with specific heart conditions.
A machine then translates the scan into code. This way, the printer could understand what it needs to recreate.
For the rest of the process, a needle-like nozzle moves through the gelatin support bath, extruding thin layers of alginate. These printed layers stack on top of each other, building the shape of the heart.
After the full-size 3D-printed heart is complete, it’s put in an incubator overnight. The temperature in the incubator is raised to 37°C to gently melt away the gelatin support structure, leaving only the 3D-printed heart.
So what’s the big deal?
This development has crucial implications in the medical industry. Because while actual FRESH heart transplants in humans are still years away, they can still be used for educational purposes in med schools.
Because FRESH heart models are so realistic, surgeons can now practice surgical techniques and test their tools before the actual surgery. Other 3D-printed body organs can also be used to test drugs safely, reduce animal testing, and also replace and repair damaged organs with a 3D duplicate.
Amazing, right? If this medical technology continues to develop, in the future people can not only have a heart of gold, but also a 3D-printed one.
If you like reading about amazing scientific discoveries, then check out this article about rats playing hide-and-seek.