Stem Cells and 3-D Printing: Innovative and Astounding Technology

The phenomenon of 3-D printing has permeated almost every industry known to man, but its most innovative and far-reaching applications are found in the world of regenerative medicine. It is known that stem cells obtained from human embryos  have the unique ability via differentiation, to develop into any kind of cell in the body, such as brain tissue, heart cells or bone. This quality makes them adaptable for repairing and replacing damaged tissues, cells and even organs and might one day make it possible for doctors to actually print out micro-organs for transplant patients.


Embryonic Stem CellsEmbryonic Stem Cells

Growing embryonic stem cells and 3-D bio-printing

Research has already established that the best way to nurture embryonic stem cells is in 3-D environments that imitate the manner in which these cells might develop inside human bodies rather than in flat lab dishes. The development of special 3-D bio-printers made exclusively for growing viable embryonic stem cell structures developed by a multi-national group of researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China and at Drexel University in Philadelphia has made  this bio-printing process possible.



These machines work by depositing layers of material in the same manner as printers lay down ink. The difference lies in their ability to superimpose flat layers on top of one another in order  to build 3-D objects. They have been even more streamlined, as up until very recently, 3-D printers constructed for embryonic stem cells were only capable of generating simple mounds of cells known as stalagmites. Now they can print 3-D structures loaded with embryonic stem cells.


Selected Embryonic Stem CellSelected Embryonic Stem Cell

Researcher and study  co-author, Wei Sun, a professor of mechanical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing had this to say: "We are able to apply a 3-D printing method to grow embryoid bodies in a controlled manner to produce highly uniform blocks of embryonic stem cells. In principle, these blocks could be used like Lego bricks to build tissues and potentially even micro-organs."

How does this process work?

The researchers used a process known as extrusion-based 3-D printing technology to produce grid-like structures that fostered the growth of an embryonic block of cells. These cell structures exhibited the ability to divide themselves into several diverse cell types. This new technique represents a breakthrough, as it resulted in better control over the size and uniformity of the cell blocks, both of which greatly influence what type of cells they are destined to become.


Stem Cell TechnologyStem Cell Technology

in a paper entitled: Three Dimensional Bioprinting of Embryonic Stem Cells Directs Highly Uniform Embryoid Body Formation, the scientists published the results of their 3-D bio-printing process online in the medical journal, Biofabrication. The authors of the paper included: Liliang Ouyang, Rui Yao, Shuangshuang Mao, Xi Chen, Jie Na and Wei Sun.

Future ramifications of this 3-D bio-printing process

Despite the fact that recreated tissue is only viable for a week, the fact that scientists were able to create stable groups of living cells for that length of time is extraordinary. Nothing before has ever accomplished that goal. We can only assume that transplant organs grown from a patient's own DNA would be only one of many potential options. For example, this process could eliminate forever both animal testing and the slaughter of animals as a food source.

Kudos to this incredible group of researchers!

How could 3-D bio-printing affect the black market and the sale of human organs?

Closing thoughts on 3-D printing:

3-D printing is a universal technology that has the potential to revolutionize our lives by enabling individuals to design and manufacture things. ~  Hod Lipson