Breathing life into 3D printed tissues

3D printing has infiltrated our daily lives. The technology offers virtually endless possibilities that already include fabricating simple gadgets in wax, gun components or airplane parts. New approaches for 3D printed structures are also being developed in medicine and may lead to the production of functional tissues in the future. An interview with Jennifer A. Lewis, Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard School of Engineering and specialist in 3D printing.

Will 3D printed organs soon be available?

3D printing of biological tissue is only at its beginning. One of the main hurdles is embedding vascular networks within the printed 3D tissues. Each cell in the human body is located at a maximum distance of a few hundred micrometers (or approximately 3 times the width of a strand of hair) from a blood vessel. The function of these vessels is to bring oxygen and nutrients to our cells and to remove waste (such as carbon dioxide). My laboratory is working on a new bio printing method that enables patterning of vascularized, cell-laden tissues.

What approach are you using to print these 3D tissues?

We have designed a number of "inks" that each has a specific role. The first ink is composed of a hydrogel (a mixture of polymer and water), that mimics the extracellular matrix found in human tissues. Its role is to serve as a kind of "soft skeleton" on which cells can attach and be supported. The second type of ink is composed of cells and extracellular matrix. The cells within the ink must survive the printing process and also thrive in the printed tissue. To facilitate that, we designed a third ink for printing the vascular network. This ink is the most innovative in that after it has been patterned in the desired form, it can be removed leaving behind empty channels (or micro-tubes) that are akin to blood vessels. This ink liquefies at a temperature of about 4 degrees, which allows it to be suctioned out. When the liquid is extracted, the remaining tubes can be injected with endothelial cells to line the channels within the embedded vascular network.

Has being a woman been prejudicial to your career?

I believe that it has allowed me to be more open to working with a great diversity of researchers and engineers in a highly collaborative manner. I am less concerned about who gets the credit for a given effort. I am driven to see our ideas come to fruition, and I recognize that to do so – we need to engage with many other groups. Certainly, there are times when I feel as though I am in the minority, but I have never felt that this has deterred my career.

What advice would you give to young women to encourage them to follow a career in Science?

There are a great number of opportunities in Science. It's a question of finding the science that you are passionate about, whether it is building bridges or constructing tissues. My passion for materials science stems comes from the fact that this is a highly interdisciplinary field – one that combines basic science and engineering to solve problems that really matter to society. As I like to say – my research group is creating matter that matters. I believe that anyone can make a difference - you just need to try!

For Women in Science

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