U of A researchers break ground on printing human-like tissues for transplant patients

Researchers at the University of Alberta are one step closer to printing functional human organs.

There are over 4,500 Albertans waiting for life-saving transplants, according to Alberta Health

Chemical engineer Stella Mathews holds up the 3D-printed leaf that her team of researchers created as a precursor to creating human-like tissues. (Michael Brown)

Researchers at the University of Alberta are one step closer to printing functional human organs.

For their first experiment, the researchers at the university's Ingenuity Lab printed a 3D leaf made of natural proteins and ink.

When the leaf was submerged in water and a UV light was shone through it, a reaction was caused that made the leaf swell. This reaction mimics the inner workings of a hydrogen fuel cell to produce heat, energy and oxygen.  

From leaf to organs still a giant leap

The result of this experiment, researchers said, proves the lab can print a fully functional biological molecule, and possibly even a functional human organ.

"It is the first step towards tissue engineering," lead chemical engineer Stella Mathews said in a news release Thursday.

The leaf is made from hydrogel — natural proteins that are able to retain water and are compatible with human tissue. If an organ were to be created and transplanted into a person, Mathews said the body would likely accept the hydrogel organ.

The university is one of many organizations working with 3D printing to create human tissue.

In 2012, doctors at the University of Michigan built a synthetic trachea from a 3D printer to replace a child's collapsing airway. Another successful experiment was conducted by San Diego-based lab Organovo, which used a 3D printer to create samples of liver cells.

But the University of Alberta lab is still several breakthroughs away from printing full organs. To date, the researchers have only printed one part of a successful organ.

"We have stabilized one factor, which is among the thousands of factors," Mathews told CBC Radio Active Friday.

The goal of the research is to eventually print more functional molecules and join them together to form organs.

Research could reduce organ-donation wait times

The lab is also printing a meniscus, one of two crescent-shaped disks found in the human knee, which absorb shock and separate the femur from the tibia — the larger of the two lower-leg bones.

A torn meniscus can cause knee pain and arthritis in patients and often needs to be replaced by a meniscus tissue transplant. The tissue needs to be individually sized to the patient before it is implanted in the knee.  

Mathews said this 3D printing technology is important because the disk can get patients through surgery faster.

"The common cells are liking the material ... and growing in it," she said.

The researchers created the disk to mimic the shape of the normal meniscus. From there, they printed a flexible disk that is able to adhere to other cells in the body and withstand pressures from surrounding bones.

The next step in their research is to apply pressure to the disk and monitor how it would respond in a human knee, which Mathews said is an ongoing part of their research.

There are over 4,500 Albertans waiting for life-saving transplants, according to Alberta Health. There are hundreds more waiting for tissue donations that could improve their quality of life.