08 Jan 2016 Trail-blazing team develop 3D printing human tissue
A TEAM of doctors, engineers and scientists in South Wales are working together to develop 3-D printed tissue - made from human cells – for the first time.
The collaboration between the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital, Swansea University Medical School and the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating aims to help patients who have lost all or part of their ear or nose through trauma or cancer to have reconstructive surgery using new tissue which is grown from their own cells.
3-D printing is increasingly used to manufacture prosthetics and implants from materials like plastic or titanium. But bio-printing – using human cells instead of man-made material– is still a very new science.
The team from Swansea have already succeeded in bio-printing small pellets of living tissue, proving the delicate cells can survive the 3-D printing process. They have also developed a jelly-like support structure, which can be used as the ink for printing the intricate shape of an ear or nose and, critically, is compatible with the human cells.
The next stage is to blend the jelly and cartilage cells together; and 3-D print them into bespoke tissue for reconstructive surgery. The resulting part will need to be strong enough to not only with stand the surgical procedure to attach it to the patient, but survive indefinitely as healthy tissue afterwards.
This tissue engineering process in ongoing, but it is anticipated that real-life surgical trials could begin in as little as 3-4 years’ time.
Professor Iain Whitaker, Consultant Plastic Surgeon, and Chair in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Swansea University Medical School, is heading up the team. He explained:
“We want to try to help people who were born with defects, or who have lost parts of their ear or nose as a result of trauma or cancer.
“We are using human cells, growing them up, to combine them with a printable material, 3-D print them and implant them into the human body.
“Lots of people have heard about 3-D printing, which is becoming more mainstream, and you can actually buy 3-D printers on the internet, to print plastics or metals. But we are working on the next stage - 3-D bioprinting - which is printing living tissues, living structures.
“This work is at the relatively early stages of development and requires combining many areas of expertise; but we already have proof of concept that human cells can survive within the printable structures we’ve made so far, and will survive the printing process.
“We’re currently working on growing up large numbers of cells in order to print larger constructs, and undertake a number of tests to ensure it will be stable enough to be used to implant into a patient.“It’s very difficult to give a time frame on any medical discovery which is based on scientific principles. But I would say that in two-three years we should be in a position to trial with animals, and within a year after that – pending ethical approval – we should be in a position to trial this in humans.”
Working alongside Professor Whitaker are Ms Zita Jessop, Dr Ayesha Al-Sabah, Dr Sian Morgan, Mr Muhammad Javed. Ms Jessop, a Plastic Surgery Registrar at the ABMU has recently won a prestigious Medical Research Council Training Fellowship (The first of its kind at Swansea University) to work on this project.
The Reconstructive Surgery and Regenerative Medicine Research Group in Swansea is a unique, multi-disciplinary collaboration including surgeons at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery, cell biologists at Swansea University Medical School (Professor Charles Archer, Professor Catherine Thornton, Professor Shareen Doak, Dr Dao Xia) and engineers at the Welsh Centre for Printing and Coating (Professor David Gethin, Professor Tim Claypole, Dr Davide Deganello and Dr Daniel Thomas).
Dr Thomas, who designed and custom made the 3D bio-printers currently used by surgeons in the lab, has praised the unique mix of expertise brought together in this project.
He is confident that this collaborative approach will only be strengthened by the work of the ARCH Programme.
ARCH (A Regional Collaboration for Health) is a new way of thinking for health, innovation and skills across South West Wales.
ABMU, Swansea University and Hywel Dda University Health Board have joined forces to create a collaborative approach to creating a healthcare system fit for the 21st Century.
Dr Thomas said: “The collaboration between the university and health board has helped push forward the research and development much faster than if the fields had worked in isolation.
“It is an exciting time to be working in South West Wales, and hopefully, with the increasing links between the university and health boards as part of ARCH, we could really do some world class work.”
An ARCH spokeswoman added: “Projects such as this innovative 3-D printed tissue prove how a collaborative approach between the health boards and university can trailblaze innovation which can actually benefit the patients of South West Wales.
“By working together, the ARCH partners are also aiming to drive investment and create jobs and enhance the skills of the next generation of healthcare professionals researchers, academics and innovators.”
ABMU's director of strategy and ARCH Programme Board member Sian Harrop-Grifftiths, added: "ARCH breaks free from an outdated healthcare system designed more than 50 years ago and replaces it with an accessible one specifically planned for today's needs, in purpose-built or refurbished accommodation.
"It focuses on keeping people healthy, or better managing disease when they're ill, but it also promotes research, training and skills to strengthen the economy through investment and innovation.”
Captions: Top picture – left to right, Professor Iain Whitaker; Zita Jessop, Jasper Sison and Dr Daniel Thomas.
Middle picture – Professor Iain Whitaker
Bottom picture - the jelly like 3-D print of an ear shape, the first stage before mixing with human cells
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ARCH Communications Manager
Tel: 01639 683672