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Fri January 17, 2014
Body On A Chip
Today we’ll talk about printing body parts. I’m not talking about antics in the copy room. I mean bio-printing three dimensional human organs for medical research.
There are several types of 3D printers, but the generic model for this particular type involves a nozzle that squirts out a building material like an ink. Mounted in a frame, it moves side to side as well as up and down. This allows for travel to any point within the printer’s range; “printing” material layer by layer. The result is an accurate translation of a digital computer file into a solid three dimensional object.
3D printing will likely provide convenient access to all kinds of stuff, from kids toys to spaceship parts. Bringing us ever closer to Star Trek style replicator technology, NASA has recently spent $120,000 to explore 3D pizza printing technology. Someday final frontiersmen and women may even print their meals, combining basic food-building chemicals the way an ink jet mixes primary colors.
For medical science, some life-saving techniques are being developed, going far beyond the replacement hips you might have heard about. Some of the most innovative and interesting ones are happening at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem. Institute director, Dr. Anthony Atala is focused on several strategies for growing human organs, including 3D printing. He kindly sat down with me to explain
Dr. Atala: “One of the strategies includes bioprinting, where we actually start to print the structure one layer at a time using cells and a hydrogel that keeps the cells together. We use the cells that belong in the organ and we program the printer to make sure that it lays down the cells right where they’re needed. They start building upon each other - so you end up with this 3 dimensional structure That you can use experimentally.”
In a recent initiative, Dr. Atala is downsizing organs to the millimeter scale, and 3D printing them onto a 2 inch chip. In fact the project is called “Body on a Chip”. Here’s the idea:
Dr. Atala: “we’re combining technology that we have developed to print organs with the microchip technology that’s currently available through computers. By combining these two technologies we can then lay down these miniature organs and these microchips that can sense what happens inside the organ when they’re exposed to different drugs and agents.”
Why so small?
Dr. Atala: “We have to print them small because we’re using microchips for sensing. The microchips themselves are allowing us to sense what’s happening inside the organ in real time. So when the organ is exposed to the drug we can know right away whether there’s any damage being done.”
If this technology lives up to its promise, it could open up a world of life saving options, - and eliminate the need for animal testing in many circumstances. In the meantime, the body on a chip is well under way and being funded by a $24 Million dollar grant from the US Department of Defense.
Dr. Atala: “This project is really aimed at testing agents for chemical and biological warfare. How can we create antidotes so that if you’re exposed to that biological or chemical agent we can stop the activity. To know that we have to first figure out how these agents are actually working in the body. You can’t these in humans, so being able to test these agents with these microchips using micro-organs made out of human cells we can see the direct effects that these agents are having and also help us to create antidotes for the future.”