This insertable 3D printer will repair tissue damage from the inside

The University of New South Wales, Sydney has developed a flexible, 3D bioprinter that allows organic material to be layered directly onto tissues or organs. This bioprinting system, unlike other methods, would be minimally invasive. It could even help avoid major surgeries and the removal of organs. It sounds like the future — at least in theory — but the research team warns it’s still five to seven years away from human testing.

F3DB is a soft robotic arm used to assemble biomaterials and living cells onto damaged tissues or internal organs. Its flexible, snake-like body would be inserted into the body via the mouth or the anus. The pilot/surgeon would then guide it to the injury area by using hand gestures. The jets can be used to spray water onto the area and the printing nozzle can double up as an electric scalpel. It is hoped that the multifunctional approach will one day be a tool that can do all three functions (incising and cleaning, printing), for minimally invasive procedures.

The F3DB’s robotic arm uses three soft-fabric-bellow actuators using a hydraulic system composed of “DC-motor-driven syringes that pump water to the actuators,” as summarized by IEEE Spectrum. The arm and flexible printing head of the printer can move in three degrees (DOFs) similar to desktop 3D printers. The device also features a miniature camera, which allows the operator to see the task in realtime.

The team conducted its first lab tests using non-biomaterials such as liquid silicone and chocolate. They later tested it on a pig’s kidney before finally moving onto biomaterials printed onto a glass surface in an artificial colon. “We saw the cells grow every day and increase by four times on day seven, the last day of the experiment,” said Thanh Nho Do, co-leader of the team and Senior Lecturer at UNSW’s Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering. “The results show the F3DB has strong potential to be developed into an all-in-one endoscopic tool for endoscopic submucosal dissection procedures.”

Although the team believes that the device has great potential, further testing is required to make it practical in the real world. The next steps would include studying its use on animals and, eventually, humans; Do believes that’s about five to seven years away. But, according to Ibrahim Ozbolat, professor of engineering science and mechanics at Pennsylvania State University, “commercialization can only be a matter of time.”

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