Lab-grown body parts could be a reality within the next three years. They're even going to be 3D printed.
That's what researchers in Swansea are saying. They hope to be among the first in the world to start using their process to benefit patients needing surgery to reconstruct body parts.
The multi-step process begins with harvesting cells from the patient's cartilage. After growing them in an incubator, they are mixed with a liquid. The resulting combination is then 3D printed onto a three-dimensional scaffold, created based on a scan of the missing body part.
After adding reagents to strengthen the structure, the jelly-like, newly printed part is shut back in the incubator to grow until its ready. It's supplied with a flow of nutrients so the cells can thrive and produce their own cartilage. Finally, the lab will test the structure to be sure it is strong enough to be implanted into the patient.
Simply put, "we're trying to grow new tissue using human cells," said Prof Iain Whitaker, consultant plastic surgeon at the Welsh Centre for Burns and Plastic Surgery at Morriston Hospital.
"We're trying to print biological structures using human cells, and provide the right environment and the right timing so it can grow into tissue that we can eventually put into a human."
Why 3D Printing?
3D printing isn't a new asset to the medical field. 3D printed prosthetics are a reality in our 21st century world. The technology has even saved lives. Traditional 3D printing utilizes materials such as plastic and metal. But the technology is versatile and its accurate nature can be especially useful.
"We're trialling using 3D printing which is a very exciting potential modality to make these relatively complex structures," says Whitaker, "that has now developed so we can consider printing biological tissue called 3D bio-printing, which is very different."
Eventually, the researchers hope that they will be able to print other body parts including bone, muscle, and vessels. According to Whitaker, the work would have to be tested on animals and go through an ethics process before human use. Much of this will be coordinated through the plastic and reconstructive surgery group at Swansea University's medical school.
"The good news in the future is, if our research is successful, within two months you'd be able to recreate a body part which was not there without having to resort to taking it from another part of the body which would cause another defect or scar elsewhere,"says Whitaker, speaking with BBC Science.