Beyond the Lab: Soft Robotic Arm Enables Direct 3D Bioprinting on Human Organs and Tissues

3D bioprinting is not so novel. This technology has a vital role in regenerative medicine and drug testing, as well as in treating various medical conditions. Recently, the potential of 3D bioprinting has been extended owing to the work of scientists from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The engineers have constructed a soft robotic arm capable of 3D printing directly on organs and tissues inside the human body. What does this mean for medicine?

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3d bioprinting

Illustration: Milica Mijajlovic

3D bioprinting refers to the process in which biomedical parts are produced from so called bioink to create structures that resemble natural tissue. Bioprinting is largely implemented in the development of new drugs and for specific research purposes like tissue engineering. Since the technology requires the use of massive 3D printing machines in order to generate cellular structures outside the living body, it’s mostly restricted to scientific labs.  

Although this technology has been facilitating the treatment of an array of conditions over the past few years, it has its own risks. Those include, but are not limited to, tissue injury, infection, and biomaterial damage. Namely, being soft and fragile, biomaterials are heavily susceptible to damage if not handled properly during the process of implantation.  

Another challenge of implementing a 3D construct that has been created externally is a potential mismatch between its surface and the tissue in which it should be implanted. The promising solution comes from the implantation of biomaterial directly on the tissue. This is precisely what the team of engineers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) might have developed.  

F3DB robotic device  

The new research was conducted at UNSW Medical Robotics Lab and lead by led by Dr Thanh Nho Do and his PhD student, Mai Thanh Thai, in collaboration Nigel Lovell, Dr Hoang-Phuong Phan, and Associate Professor Jelena Rnjak-Kovacina. The detailed paper was published in Advanced Science.  

The scientists have built a new device, a flexible soft robotic arm which can be inserted into the human’s body and print biomaterials directly on the surface of a tissue or organ. The device prototype is similar to an endoscope, with a size of about 11-13 mm. This small size makes it possible for the device to be inserted in a human gastrointestinal tract. 

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Our flexible 3D bioprinter means biomaterials can be directly delivered into the target tissue or organs with a minimally invasive approach. This system offers the potential for the precise reconstruction of three-dimensional wounds inside the body, such as gastric wall injuries or damage and disease inside the colon Our prototype is able to 3D print multilayered biomaterials and different sizes and shapes through confined and hard-to-reach areas, thanks to its flexible body.

Dr Thanh Nho Do, University of New South Wales

The F3DB was tested both on flat and curved surfaces – inside an artificial colon and on the surface of a pig’s kidney. The device accurately printed various shapes by using biomaterials, composite gel, and chocolate. Biomaterials typically include living cells combined with some drugs.  

The research team also investigated the survival of living biomaterial that had been printed in order to further illustrate the technology’s viability. The majority of the cells were found to remain alive after printing, demonstrating that the cells were not harmed by the technique. In fact, most of them were alive, and what’s more interesting, they continued to grow in the next seven days. The final result was four times as many cells only a week after the printing process.   

Having finished printing process in one area, the F3DB can be relocated to another area to begin printing again. This implies that, contrary to existing bioprinting technology, the device can be implemented on large areas, including the whole surface of organs such as the colon, stomach, heart, and bladder. 

Soft robotics 

The F3DB device is equipped with a three-axis printing head fixed directly to the end of a flexible robotic arm. Its printing head functions very similarly to other desktop 3D printers since it is made of soft artificial muscles that allow it to move in three dimensions. 

Due to hydraulics, the soft robotic arm can bend and twist and may be made to any necessary length. Its stiffness may be precisely adjusted by utilizing various elastic fabric and tube types. 

f3db robotic printer

Source: Academic Science 

When more sophisticated or arbitrary bioprinting is required, the printing nozzle can be manually manipulated or programmed to print certain shapes. The researchers also used a controller that is based on machine learning and can assist with printing. 

All-in-one tool 

The engineers also showed how the F3DB may be implemented as a multipurpose endoscopic surgical instrument. According to them, this may be particularly significant in cancer-removing surgeries, specifically colorectal cancer, via a procedure known as endoscopic submucosal dissection (ESD). 

At the global level, colorectal cancer stands for the third most frequent cause of death due to cancer. However, early removal of colorectal neoplasia increases the patient’s five-year survival rate by at least 90%. The nozzle of the device’s head may be implemented as a sort of electric scalpel to mark and remove malignant lesions. 

Additionally, water can be sprayed through the nozzle to remove any blood or extra tissue from the wound. While the robotic arm is still in place, the immediate 3D printing of biomaterial may speed up the healing process.  

At the moment, there are no commercially available tools that can print on interior organs and tissues yet. According to the F3DB’s creators, with more development, the device should be available to healthcare experts in five to seven years.  

Why is 3D bioprinting significant? 

As already mentioned, 3D bioprinting refers to a technology in which bioinks are mixed with living cells and then printed in 3D to form structures that resemble natural tissues. Bioinks consist of natural or synthetic biomaterials which can be combined with living cells. Presently, 3D bioprinting can be utilized in research areas like tissue engineering as well as in new drug development.  

3d bioprinting

Source: BIOLIFE4D

The disciplines of tissue engineering, bioengineering, and materials science can all benefit from 3D bioprinting. The present focus of bioprinting research is on clinical applications including 3D-printed skin and bone grafts, implants, and even complete organs. Though it’s is increasingly being used for drug research and approval, it’s only a matter of time when 3D bioprinting will be moved to hospitals and clinics for treating various diseases and conditions on a regular basis. 

3D bioprinting is crucial in the field of tissue engineering, whose goal is to create functional tissue to be applied in drug testing and regenerative medicine. Hopefully, repairing or replacing damaged tissues and organs may be possible someday with the help of tissue regeneration and reconstruction. 

Advantages and disadvantages of 3D bioprinting 

Nothing is perfect, so nor is 3D bio printing. The technology comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Though the benefits undoubtedly outweigh drawbacks, they are worth taking into consideration. 

Pros  

  • It allows for the replication of the natural structure of desired tissues and organs. 
  • It has the potential to significantly advance medical treatments in the future. 
  • It could make it possible to create personalized treatments for individual patients and organs. 
  • The effects of drugs can be studied more accurately and in details. 
  • It can decrease the need for animal testing. 
  • It is biocompatible with human cells and tissues. 
  • It can automate complex processes, leading to greater consistency and fewer errors. 

Cons 

  • The technology is expensive and can be exorbitant. 
  • The process is complex and may be difficult to maintain in terms of the cell environment. 
  • It may stir ethical issues and concern 
  • Energy consumption can be a concern. 

3D bioprinting in the future 

The rapid evolution of 3D bioprinting is another example of how quickly technology is developing. This three-dimensional printing method has the potential to solve healthcare issues by creating functioning organs using bioprinted tissue from a patient’s own cells. Successful bladder transplants into human bodies utilizing bioprinted tissue made from patients’ own cells have already been accomplished. The potential for printing other functional organs is a topic of ongoing research. 

In the future, tailored human organs could be printed using the patients’ own cells or stem cells as a base, potentially eliminating the need for organ donors. This technology may completely change how diseases are treated and prevented in the future. It is envisaged that bioprinting technology could eventually improve and streamline medical treatment. 

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