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University of Utah
University of Utah biomedical engineering assistant professor Robby Bowles and his team have developed a method to 3D print cells to produce human tissue such as ligaments and tendons to greatly improve a patient’s recovery. A person with a badly damaged ligament, tendon or ruptured disc could simply have new replacement tissue printed and ultimately implanted in the damaged area.

SALT LAKE CITY — The ability to create, from scratch, a custom-matched organ to replace a failing liver, pancreas or heart could be a lot closer than most people think.

University of Utah researcher Robert Bowles has hit a benchmark in his work to recreate tendon and ligament tissue using a modified 3D printer and stem cells harvested from fat tissue.

While a far cry, on a complexity basis, from the organs that pump and filter blood or create necessary stomach enzymes, the work Bowles and his team are doing is advancing a quest that is drawing increasing interest, and hundreds of millions in private and public investment.

Bowles, who is also a professor of bioengineering specializing in the musculoskeletal system, said his technique could lead to the ability to print replacement tissues for those suffering from damaged tendons, ligaments or spinal disc ruptures.

"It will allow patients to receive replacement tissues without additional surgeries and without having to harvest tissue from other sites, which has its own source of problems,” Bowles said.

He said the process involves layering stem cells on a hydrogel medium, using a modified 3D printer, which can then be grown in the lab for later implantation. The printer head is designed in a way that allows researchers to control how the cells are organized — critical to tissue generation — that leads to positive outcomes.

"This is a technique in a very controlled manner to create a pattern and organizations of cells that you couldn’t create with previous technologies,” Bowles said. “It allows us to very specifically put cells where we want them.”

Utah biomedical firm Carterra supported Bowles' work, including providing the printer that was modified to perform the tissue generation process. Bruce Gale, director of research at Carterra and chairman of the U.'s Department of Mechanical Engineering, said while creating a complex organ with a 3D printer is still on the horizon, Bowles' work is helping make strides toward making it scientific reality.

"Dr. Bowles has been able to show that he can print and develop tissues that closely replicate what happens in the body using Carterra printers," Gale said. "We’re excited about the opportunity to work with him on perfecting this technique."

Richard Brown, dean of the U.'s College of Engineering, said the research Bowles and his team are doing reflects the advances possible in a high-tech approach to addressing medical challenges.

"Dr. Bowles and his student, David Ede, have developed a very promising method for growing human tissue to repair damaged body parts," Brown said. "This research is an example of what technological medicine is becoming and of the amazing work being done by our biomedical engineering department to help people suffering from a wide range of medical problems."

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Bioprinting is a market currently seeing explosive growth and attracting hundreds of millions in investment. So called "regenerative medicine," which includes stem cell therapy and human tissue generation, is contributing to a growing market that's already generating billions in economic activity, according to recent Forbes coverage.

Bowles said while he anticipates 3D printing of simple tissues and organs will be a functional reality in just a handful of years, complex organ generation is likely 10 to 20 years away, but within sight.