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Lab-grown human organs closer than ever, according to scientists

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 An artificial blood cell network created from sugar is making waves within the science community this week. (iStock)Science is one step closer to the creation of a functional, artificial human liver thanks to a team of American researchers and their work in the emerging field of "bioprinting."

Scientists have been experimenting with artificial cells for years, using high-tech 3D printing machines to build up layers of artificial cells into tissue structure.

Unfortunately, these synthetically engineered cells often die before the tissue is formed due to a lack of blood vessels, and in turn, a lack of nutrients and oxygen.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set out to solve this problem by building a synthetic vascular system using sugar.

"We created a network of places that we wish vessels to grow into, so they would become piping into the tissue, and we printed those in 3D out of sugar," said MIT professor and study co-researcher Sangeeta Bhatia to the BBC.

"We then surrounded the network with the cells that we would like to be fed by the blood vessels when the tissue is implanted - and once we have this structure of pipes-to-be and tissue, we dissolve away the sugar using water."

Interest in the potential of 3D printing machines to produce transplantable lab-grown organs has spread in recent years. This technology, if perfected, could help alleviate the world's donor organ shortage.

The study, which appears in the journal Natural Materials, details the process as quick, inexpensive and effective.

Human blood vessel cells injected throughout the artificial networks spontaneously generated new capillary sprouts, according to researchers. This is how blood vessels naturally grow in the human body.

And while their artificial blood vessel network was designed for a human liver, Prof. Bhatia said that these learnings could be applied toward any other bodily tissue.

"With this work, we've brought engineered liver tissues orders of magnitude closer to that goal, but at tens of millions of liver cells per gel we've still got a ways to go," she said.

"More work is needed to learn how to directly connect these types of vascular networks to natural blood vessels while at the same time investigating fundamental interactions between the liver cells and the patterned vasculature. It's an exciting future ahead."

What do you think of bioprinted organs? Should governments be investing more money into this type of innovation? If given the chance to receive an artificial organ that you needed, would you take it? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.

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