Making organs with a printer? Winston-Salem researcher does just that

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — After reading this, you’ll probably never look at your home printer the same way again!

Inside a prominent building inside the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter you can see well from Business Interstate 40 in downtown Winston-Salem, sits the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

At just about any given time, the more than 400 people who work here are trying to solve a healthcare crisis: the lack of human organs and tissue available for transplants and implants.

Dr. Anthony Atala, a practicing pediatric urologist and professor, is the institute’s director and the world’s foremost authority on tissue regeneration.

“Our organs and tissues are regenerating all the time,” he told me during a recent tour of the facility. “The problem arises when you have an injury, and that’s when the body can stop its regeneration capacities. It’s form scar tissue faster than it will regenerate. So regenerative medicine is how we can get your body back to regenerating itself.”

When there’s an injury, Dr. Atala says, the body’s first response is to close itself off from the surrounding area and protect itself from infection. Today, Dr. Atala and his team are bypassing that defensive response by creating new tissues and organs with a patient’s own cells, meaning there are no rejection issues.

When I first met Dr. Atala in 2008, his team was already taking tissue cells from a patient’s body, mixing them together and placing that mixture on a mold or scaffold. Eight years ago, doctors were already implanting these fabricated urethras, bladders and cartilage (like what you find in your ear).

His team was also placing different cells in Hewlett-Packard inkjet cartridges and using a retrofitted inkjet printer to create three-dimensional tissue.

“The structures that we were creating with those desktop printers, even though they had cells, they did not have the structural integrity necessary for us to implant it surgically,” he told me during my most recent visit.

Enter ITOP, the Integrated Tissue and Organ Printing System developed during the last eight years by researchers here at the institute. It’s the world’s printer that can fabricate human tissue and mold it into shape.

“The cells go down through the printer as a liquid, but the moment they leave the nozzle, they actually modify externally so that when it drops onto the surface, it already has a shape to it that retains its structure, “ Atala said.

The printer’s also capable of “printing” micro channels that act much like blood vessels in allowing the tissue to get the nutrients it needs. It’s already printed bone, muscles and cartilage.

Some of this system’s “printed” tissues have already been implanted in animals and they actually became functional, even developing a system of nerves and blood vessels. The next step involves getting Food and Drug Administration approval for human trials.

Dr. Atala foresees a day when a soldier’s injured in the battlefield or a patient arrives in an emergency room needing a replacement organ or other body part. CT scans and MRI images along with the patient’s own cells are immediately sent to a tissue production facility. Then doctors will be able to replace/implant the organ or other part with fabricated tissue in a matter of hours.

For more information about the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, click here.

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