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3D Bioprinting of Functional Heart Ventricle

Image credits: new.nsf.gov

In the past decade, 3D printing has witnessed remarkable progress, particularly in bioengineering, where it has opened up exciting new avenues for creating heart tissues and intricate structures. The primary objective behind these endeavours is to revolutionise in vitro platforms, making them more effective tools for discovering novel therapeutics to combat heart disease, the foremost cause of mortality in the United States, contributing to approximately one out of every five deaths nationwide.

In light of this, researchers also envision employing 3D-printed cardiac tissues to conduct personalised assessments, determining the most suitable treatment options for individual patients.

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences with the National Science Foundation have achieved a milestone in 3D bioprinting, revolving around creating an innovative hydrogel ink infused with gelatin fibres, unlocking the potential to 3D print a fully functional heart ventricle. This accomplishment signifies a leap forward in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.

The core breakthrough lies in their fibre-infused gel (FIG) ink, a revolutionary material that can align heart muscle cells in the precise configuration of a ventricle. Moreover, these bioengineered heart muscle cells exhibit synchronous beating, mirroring the coordinated rhythm of a human heart chamber. This precision and physiological relevance level has been a long-sought-after goal in bioprinting.

Suji Choi, a researcher, noted the longstanding aspiration to replicate organ structures and functions for testing drug safety and efficacy, thereby providing insights into potential clinical outcomes. However, before this breakthrough, 3D printing techniques alone had yet to achieve the crucial goal of achieving physiologically accurate alignment of cardiomyocytes, the specialised cells responsible for transmitting electrical signals synchronously to facilitate heart muscle contraction.

The genesis of this project was a response to the limitations encountered in the 3D printing of biological tissues. Spearheaded by Kevin “Kit” Parker, the head of the Disease Biophysics Group said that this research aims to overcome the existing challenges in the field of regenerative medicine and bring us closer to the realisation of functional, bioengineered organs and tissues for a myriad of medical applications.

The advancement at the heart of this innovation revolves around integrating fibres into a 3D printable ink medium. Suji Choi explained that FIG ink has the unique ability to flow smoothly through a 3D printer’s nozzle during fabrication.

However, it retains its 3D form and shape integrity once the structure is printed. This property eliminates the need for supplementary support materials or scaffolds when printing complex 3D shapes, such as ventricle-like structures, representing a significant leap forward in bioprinting.

Choi’s experiments with FIG ink unveiled another remarkable aspect of this technology. As she printed both 2D and 3D structures using this innovative ink, the cardiomyocytes, the specialised muscle cells of the heart, naturally aligned themselves with the orientation of the embedded fibres within the ink. This alignment could be precisely controlled by manipulating the printing direction, offering researchers unprecedented control over the arrangement of these vital cells.

The achievement became apparent when Choi applied electrical stimulation to the 3D-printed structures crafted with FIG ink. This stimulation induced a synchronised wave of contractions among the cardiomyocytes, ideally in harmony with the direction of the embedded fibres.

This meant that, in a ventricle-shaped structure, the chamber started to exhibit pumping behaviour akin to heart ventricles. This development stirred considerable excitement among researchers and the medical community at large. This breakthrough holds promise for the future of regenerative medicine and cardiac tissue engineering.


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