In a country where a reality television star can run for president, anything is possible. Luckily, this includes 3D printing live blood vessels, a feat that has taken the medical community by storm and has serious implications for the future of organ generation and human physiology at large. In a process known as bioprinting, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have successfully “printed” these tiny structures using “bio-ink,” a sort of organic material that is compatible with the human body. And best of all, the process allows for these blood vessels to grow themselves, creating a self-sustaining system that behaves like the real thing.
“It’s going to change the way we do biology,” said lab research engineer Monica Moya, the project’s principal investigator. “This technology can take biology from the traditional petri dish to a 3D physiologically relevant tissue patch with functional vasculature.”
The process is a long and complex one, but the results are groundbreaking. Moya and her team began by printing tubes of cells that are capable of carrying out the basic function of human blood vessels — delivering essential nutrients — to the surrounding environment (also printed with biomaterials). Then, over time, capillaries begin to assemble themselves, and ultimately connect with the original tubes to continue the nutrient delivery process. The final result is a self-sustaining capillary system that functions as it would in the human body.
“If you take this approach of co-engineering with nature you allow biology to help create the finer resolution of the printed tissue,” Moya said. “We’re leveraging the body’s ability for self-directed growth, and you end up with something that is more true to physiology.” The production of these artificial blood vessels could be a life-saving factor for patients with malfunctioning blood vessels, who currently depend on tissue donors for treatment. But whereas the body sometimes rejects these foreign tissues, this 3D-printing method lets doctors “put the cells in an environment where they know, ‘I need to build blood vessels,’” says Moya.
“With this technology we guide and orchestrate the biology,” the scientist said. And if that’s not playing God in the best way possible, I just don’t know what is.