Stanford Scientists 3D-Print Heart Tissue from Stem Cells

The way we construct homes, cars, and even food is changing thanks to 3D printers. They may alter how transplant patients receive new organs in part because of researchers at Stanford University. Their innovative method might eventually enable the printing of organs from the patient’s own cells on demand.

Bioengineers Mark Skylar-Scott and his group have created a method that enables them to 3D-print living heart tissue. One day, they hope to print vital components of the heart, such as valves and ventricles, that would really develop with the patient.

In the US, one in every 100 babies is born with a cardiac problem. Even though they can receive transplants, the body may reject the transplants up to 20 or 30 years after they were given. Using a patient's own cells to bio-print a new organ could lower those incidences.

"It is ambitious, but we believe that a lot of the basic building blocks to start a project like this are in place," Skylar-Scott said.

The method is an illustration of bio-printing, a technique that uses living cells to produce structures that resemble organs. Although the idea of modern bio-printing is not new, the process is laborious. Typically, one cell must be printed at a time. A single human heart would require more than a thousand years to create, even if 1,000 cells were printed per second.

By printing with organoids, collections of tens of thousands of cells, Skylar-Scott and his team have created a technique for accelerating the process. “We take millions of those and condense them into what is essentially a human stem cell mayonnaise, that we can then print through the printer,” he said.

Once the cells are printed, they take on the general shape of tissue that can then have blood vessel networks printed within them.

The group has already created a self-pumping structure that resembles a human vein and is made of tubes. Printing a larger structure, such as a useful chamber that could be grafted onto an existing heart, would be the next stage.

Although we're probably at least two decades away from a fully printed heart, Skylar-Scott said he believes a heart valve printed using this technique could be implanted in a human patient in as little as five years.

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