Australian researchers have developed a snake-like robot designed to 3D print living cells right inside patients’ bodies; it could one day eliminate the need for invasive procedures to transplant 3D-printed tissues and therapies.
3D bioprinters: Like traditional 3D printers, 3D bioprinters place ink layer by layer to make 3D objects. The only difference is that they use bio-inks that contain living cells.
Armed with 3D bioprinters, researchers are creating cartilage for reconstructive rhinoplasty, stem cell patches to repair baby hearts, and ear implants for children born with birth defects.
3D bioprinting makes it easy to create tissues precisely in the shape and size required, and because the patient’s own cells can be used in the ink, the risk of rejection is minimized.
However, bioprinting cannot yet eliminate the need for invasive implantation procedures.
“Existing 3D bioprinting techniques require biomaterials to be created outside the body, and implanting them in a person would typically require extensive open surgery that increases the risks of infection”,
said Thank No Do, a biomedical engineer at UNSW Sydney.
The idea: Do developed “F3DB”. It’s a flexible soft robot that could be inserted into the body through a small incision and then used to 3D bio-print parts exactly where they’re needed.
“Our prototype is able to 3D print multilayer biomaterials of different sizes and shapes through confined and hard-to-reach areas, thanks to its flexible body”,
How it works: The researchers developed several prototypes with heads ranging in diameter from 20mm to 11mm; the smallest version is about the size of endoscopes currently used to inspect the inside of the colon.
The system works similarly to conventional desktop 3D bioprinters, according to the researchers, and can be manually controlled during a surgical procedure, or programmed in advance to print a specific shape.
In addition to printing bio-inks, the soft robot can act as an endoscope, electric scalpel, and water dispenser; researchers have demonstrated these functions in an artificial colon and a pig’s intestine and kidney (though not in the animal’s body).
“Compared to existing endoscopic surgical instruments, the developed “F3DB” was designed as an all-in-one endoscopic instrument that avoids the use of variable instruments that are usually associated with longer procedure time and infection risks”,
said researcher Mai Than Tai.
Looking ahead: The “bot” will need to be tested in vivo on animals before researchers can begin thinking about human trials; they expect it to be about 5 to 7 years away from being ready for clinical use, assuming that everything is going according to plan.
The researchers also believe the system could be scaled down for other uses, so perhaps one day, instead of 3D bioprinting patches and then sewing them onto babies’ hearts in open-heart surgery, doctors will be able to use a version of “F3DB” to print the patches exactly where they are needed.
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