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U of U biomedical engineers give transplant patients hope with 3D printed cells

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SALT LAKE CITY — In recent years, engineers have used 3D printers to create everything from auto part, and artificial limbs, to guns and food. Now a team of University of Utah biomedical engineers has come up with a way to 3D print cells to produce human tissue such as ligaments and tendons, and someday even organs. It’s a development that gives some transplant patients hope to live for.

“This is a significant leap,” said Robert Bowles, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Utah. He said, his team took a big step toward someday replacing damaged ligaments, tendons or ruptured discs for patients with new tissue printed from a 3D printer head.

They take stem cells from the patient’s body fat and print them onto a collagen gel to form a tendon or ligament.

“It flows down onto the tissue,” he said, referring to the placement of the cells.

That tissue can then be grown in an incubator before being implanted.

“It allows us to produce tendons and ligaments that can actually integrate into the body when a surgeon places them,” said Bowles.

This process could create replacement tissue for patients without having to harvest from other sites.

“The next step is actually using it to produce tissues and organs,” he said. "It opens the door for creating more complicated organs and tissues that we couldn’t create before.”

A decade from now, doctors and biomedical engineers might create a knee ligament for an injured skier. In 15 years, Bowles said, they may be able to create a kidney or liver for somebody waiting for a transplant. This is incredible news for people like Dax Francis.

“That would be amazing and alleviate a lot of waiting for a lot of people,” he said. “It’s awful having to wait.”

We first met Francis when he was tuning up his golf game for the 2018 Transplant Games of America, hosted in Salt Lake City this past summer. He had a kidney transplant six years ago, but will need another one someday after his disease destroys his current kidney.

“Just having that possibility where there won’t be a wait at all in the future, for maybe not myself, but for someone who comes next, that’s huge,” he said.

It’s a biomedical development that gives hope to many patients awaiting organ transplants even if the solution is years away, he said.

“Something like a 3D printed organ would be magical,” said Francis. “A dream come true for a lot of people.”

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Jed Boal


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