Scientists 3D-Print and Implant Jawbones, Muscles, and Ears

Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine / Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

We may not have teleporters or instant meal machines yet, but the scientific future has arrived. Researchers have found a way to print implantable, human-scale muscle, cartilage, and bone. Their findings were published online today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

Though the accomplishment is impressive, it’s hardly a surprise. The field of tissue engineering has been steadily pumping out futuristic advances for years. The National Institutes of Health is pursuing a “tissue on a chip” program to better anticipate how human cells respond to different drugs. Other scientists are working with 3-D bioprinters to print new skin for burn victims.

The new integrated tissue and organ printing system (ITOP) is still a step beyond. It is similar to the inkjet printer in your house, except instead of colored and black ink it dispenses biodegradable scaffolding and hydrogel filled with living cells. The scaffolding provides a structural integrity for the body parts to help them survive transplantation, while the permeable, water-based cell gel ensures that oxygen and nutrients can get in. As a result, the implanted printed tissue can grow safely and even form new blood vessels.

The researchers printed out jawbones, chunks of muscle, and “ear-shaped cartilage." They then implanted these pieces in rodents, where they thrived.

“This novel tissue and organ printer is an important advance in our quest to make replacement tissue for patients,” senior author Anthony Atala, of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, said in a press statement. “It can fabricate stable, human-scale tissue of any shape. With further development, this technology could potentially be used to print living tissue and organ structures for surgical implantation.”

The scientists said that someday, doctors might be able to print new customized body parts for patients whose own bones, muscles, and cartilage are missing or broken. But for now, there's still research to be done; ITOP’s jaws and ears have not been tested in humans.