A 3D-printed device made with living cells may help patients with long-term spinal cord injuries alleviate pain as well as regain some functions like control of muscles, bowel, and bladder, researchers suggest.
A 3D-printed guide, made of silicone, serves as a platform for specialized cells that are then 3D printed on top of the device, explain engineers and medical researchers from the University of Minnesota, who developed it.
The guide would be surgically implanted into the injured area of the spinal cord where it would serve as a type of “bridge” between living nerve cells above and below the area of injury, explains a media release from the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering.
Their study was published recently in Advanced Functional Materials.
“This is the first time anyone has been able to directly 3D print neuronal stem cells derived from adult human cells on a 3D-printed guide and have the cells differentiate into active nerve cells in the lab,” says Michael McAlpine, PhD, a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the University’s College of Science and Engineering.
“This is a very exciting first step in developing a treatment to help people with spinal cord injuries,” states Ann Parr, MD, PhD, a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Medical School Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery and Stem Cell Institute, per the release.
“Currently,” she adds, “there aren’t any good, precise treatments for those with long-term spinal cord injuries.”
In this new process developed at the University of Minnesota over the last 2 years, researchers start with any kind of cell from an adult, such as a skin cell or blood cell. Using new bioengineering techniques, the medical researchers are able to reprogram the cells into neuronal stem cells.
The engineers print these cells onto a silicone guide using a unique 3D-printing technology in which the same 3D printer is used to print both the guide and the cells. The guide keeps the cells alive and allows them to change into neurons. The team developed a prototype guide that would be surgically implanted into the damaged part of the spinal cord and help connect living cells on each side of the injury, the release continues.
“Everything came together at the right time,” Parr comments. “We were able to use the latest cell bioengineering techniques developed in just the last few years and combine that with cutting-edge 3D-printing techniques.”
Even with the latest technology, developing the prototype guides wasn’t easy, they add.
“3D printing such delicate cells was very difficult,” McAlpine shares. “The hard part is keeping the cells happy and alive. We tested several different recipes in the printing process. The fact that we were able to keep about 75 percent of the cells alive during the 3D-printing process and then have them turn into healthy neurons is pretty amazing.”
If the next steps are successful, the team hopes this process could be used for those with spinal cord injuries, the release continues.
“We’ve found that relaying any signals across the injury could improve functions for the patients,” Parr notes. “There’s a perception that people with spinal cord injuries will only be happy if they can walk again. In reality, most want simple things like bladder control or to be able to stop uncontrollable movements of their legs. These simple improvements in function could greatly improve their lives.”
[Source(s): University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, Newswise]