Brussels, 20 Jan 2005
The treatment of burn victims or patients with severe disfigurements is set to be revolutionised following the development by scientists in the UK of an inkjet that can print human cells.
Using this method, the team of researchers from the University of Manchester says that it will be possible to print 'made-to-measure' tissue and bones to be grown simply by inputting their dimensions into a computer.
The new technique would overcome the limitations of current tissue replacement methods that are unable to produce large tissues, and which give scientists limited control over the shape or size that the tissue will grow to. Most importantly, the new method allows more than one type of cell to be printed at once, creating the prospect of performing bone grafts.
The head of the 'inkjet printing of human cells project', Brian Derby, says: 'It is difficult for a surgeon to reconstruct any complex disfiguring of the face using CT scans, but with this technology we are able to build a fragment which will fit exactly. We can place cells in any designed position in order to grow tissue or bone.
'Using conventional methods, you are only able to grow tissues which are a few millimetres thick, which is fine for growing artificial skin, but if you wanted to grow cartilage, for instance, it would be impossible,' Professor Derby explained.
The team's key breakthrough was the development of an innovative method for pre-determining the size and shape of the tissue or bone to be grown. Using cell printers to print thin layers of tissue repeatedly on top of each other, the scientists first create three-dimensional structures, known as 'tissue scaffolds', which determine the shape of the replacement tissue as it grows.
As for the printer itself, before being fed into the inkjet, the human cells are suspended in a nutrient rich liquid to ensure their survival. The cells are then seeded directly into the structure as it is built, thus avoiding any 'sticking' which is a major disadvantage of current methods.
Professor Derby believes that the potential of his team's discovery is enormous: 'You could print the scaffolding to create an organ in a day,' he says.