How to 3-D print a heart

October 23, 2015

Coronary artery structure being 3-D bioprinted (credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering)

Carnegie Mellon scientists are creating cutting-edge technology that could one day solve the shortage of heart transplants, which are currently needed to repair damaged organs.

“We’ve been able to take MRI images of coronary arteries and 3-D images of embryonic hearts and 3-D bioprint them with unprecedented resolution and quality out of very soft materials like collagens, alginates and fibrins,” said Adam Feinberg, an associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

Feinberg leads the Regenerative Biomaterials and Therapeutics Group, and the group’s study was published in an open-access paper today (Oct. 23) in the journal Science Advances.

College of Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University | Adam Feinberg Demonstrates 3-D Bioprinting Process

“The challenge with soft materials is that they collapse under their own weight when 3-D printed in air,” explained Feinberg. “So we developed a method of printing these soft materials inside a support bath material. Essentially, we print one gel inside of another gel, which allows us to accurately position the soft material as it’s being printed, layer-by-layer.”

A FRESH idea

A schematic of the FRESH process showing the hydrogel (green) — representing an artery — being added to the gelatin slurry support bath (yellow). The 3D object is built layer by layer and, when completed, is released by heating to 37°C and melting the gelatin. (credit: Thomas J. Hinton et al./Science Advances)

With this new FRESH (Freeform Reversible Embedding of Suspended Hydrogels) technique, after printing, the support gel can be easily melted away and removed by heating to body temperature, which does not damage the delicate biological molecules or living cells that were bioprinted.

(Left) A model of a section of a human right coronary arterial tree created from a 3D MRI image is processed at full scale into machine code for FRESH printing. (Right) An example of the arterial tree printed in alginate (black) and embedded in the gelatin slurry support bath. Scale bar: 10 mm. (credit: Thomas J. Hinton et al./Science Advances)

As a next step, the group is working toward incorporating real heart cells into these 3-D printed tissue structures, providing a scaffold to help form contractile muscle.

Accessible bioprinters

Most 3-D bioprinters cost more than $100,000 and/or require specialized expertise to operate, limiting wider-spread adoption. Feinberg’s group, however, has been able to implement their technique on a range of consumer-level 3-D printers, which cost less than $1,000 and use open-source hardware and software.

“Not only is the cost low, but by using open-source software, we have access to fine-tune the print parameters, optimize what we’re doing, and maximize the quality of what we’re printing,” Feinberg said.

More than 4,000 Americans are currently on the waiting list to receive a heart transplant. With failing hearts, these patients have no other options; heart tissue, unlike other parts of the body, is unable to heal itself once it is damaged.

Abstract of Three-dimensional printing of complex biological structures by freeform reversible embedding of suspended hydrogels

We demonstrate the additive manufacturing of complex three-dimensional (3D) biological structures using soft protein and polysaccharide hydrogels that are challenging or impossible to create using traditional fabrication approaches. These structures are built by embedding the printed hydrogel within a secondary hydrogel that serves as a temporary, thermoreversible, and biocompatible support. This process, termed freeform reversible embedding of suspended hydrogels, enables 3D printing of hydrated materials with an elastic modulus <500 kPa including alginate, collagen, and fibrin. Computer-aided design models of 3D optical, computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging data were 3D printed at a resolution of ~200 μm and at low cost by leveraging open-source hardware and software tools. Proof-of-concept structures based on femurs, branched coronary arteries, trabeculated embryonic hearts, and human brains were mechanically robust and recreated complex 3D internal and external anatomical architectures.